‘Exchanging Glances’ at Chatterjee & Lal

As this unsettling new show makes abundantly clear, India needs to do something about its men.

October 13, 2011 2:53 pm by

'Send Some Candids #1', 2011.

In “Exchanging Glances”, which opens tonight at Chatterjee & Lal, three male artists, Fabien Charuau, Michael Bühler-Rose and Pradeep Dalal, grapple with the human gaze. Bühler-Rose, an American photographer and disciple of the Hare Krishna movement, shows pictures of fetching, young white women, dressed in saris and looking languorously off in the distance or back at the viewer. Dalal, a New York-based photographer, uses old records, family photos, and archival ones of Lothal, an archaeological site in Gujarat, to hint at the evolution of Indian male identity. Charuau, a French photographer based in Mumbai, deals with perhaps the most unsettling one of them all: the voyeuristic male gaze. Not just the photographer’s and the viewer’s gaze, which also come into play here, but that of thousands of Indian men across the country who surreptitiously take pictures of women with their mobile phone cameras.

Those photos, which vary from the unquestioningly invasive to the perplexing and even strangely artistic, are uploaded onto online forums, where users tag them with titles like “candid river bathing” or “foolish girl’s upskirt.” The forums are functional at best, stripped down to just text, links and photos, where threads of images are often peppered with lewd comments and occasionally, suggestions on how to take more vivid and detailed shots. The photos, called “candids”, number well into the hundreds of thousands, and cut across caste, class and geographical lines. In some, faces and other identifying markers—jewellery, hair bands, purses—have been pixelated, obscured or otherwise blacked out, but in several, they are left intact. There are women standing on balconies, women washing their feet, the small of a commuter’s back, women with visible bra straps, young girls in skirts, maids, working women, students, elderly women, mothers and sisters.

Charuau, who searched for these forums after his wife found herself being photographed unknowingly on the street one day, has culled just nine from the 10,000-odd photos he downloaded off of the Internet, for this show. They include one of a portly couple, the faces of the man and woman blacked out; two women on a beach, their salwars fluttering in the wind; three young girls posing for a photograph; a buxom middle-aged women, her cleavage clearly discernible through her turquoise pallu; and a woman in a green sari, her face pixelated visciously almost to resemble acid burns (see image). Accompanying these photos, which have been left untouched save for the framing, are two videos. One shows a stream of these images on a mobile phone camera, distorted to just a blurry mash of colours, and overlaid with a computer-generated audio of some of the more graphic comments on the forum. The second video is another stream of pictures of women, this one accompanied by a grating, synthesised audio of instructions left by users on how to take good photos without being caught (the title “Safety First. Desire Next” was one such comment).

Charuau, who showed a series of photos of spindly Indian men last year at Matthieu Foss Gallery, says he saw these videos as acts of redemption for these women. “I’m making them disappear,” he says. “It’s like saying a big ‘fuck you’ to these men.” It’s impossible not to react, violently or otherwise, to the photos. They are at once menacing, vulnerable and odd—why the picture of the couple, for instance—further evidence, if it was ever needed, that women in India increasingly occupy uncertain territory as our sex ratios tilt dangerously in favour of men. It is equally easy to misread the intent of showing them in the first place, which at first thought, seems to perpetuate the idea that these women, photographed without their knowledge and permission, are victims even to artistic practice. Linger over them, however, with the unpleasant soundtrack making you flinch, and you begin to realise that to not show these images would be to do the women an even greater disfavour. To display them is an uncomfortable step in acknowledging, that when it comes to our women, whether in protecting or respecting them, India is shamefully inept.

“Exchanging Glances” will open tonight to coincide with Art Night Thursday, when galleries in Colaba will remain open until 9pm.