The following text is based on an interview between Karen Knorr and Nirati Agrawal, from the Indian magazine Marwar. The interview took place during the Delhi Art Fair in January 2012, where her recent work, India Song, was exhibited at the Delhi branch of Tasveer Gallery, a pan- Indian network of photographic galleries based in Bangalore. The images following the interview are all from India Song.
NIRATI AGRAWAL: Your biography says that you have studied both film and culture and learnt about the politics of representation. In what way has this educational background informed your photography?
KAREN KNORR: My educational background has made me consider photography as a method of enquiry. Having studied the history of art in the West, I have an acute awareness of the exclusions that distorted art culture there to privilege Italian and Greek canons, with Renaissance and Hellenic eras as the high points in Western art. I was very interested in aesthetics, the philosophical ideas of what underpins notions of beauty, and I came to see how limited our Western canons of beauty are, and how prescriptive, particularly concerning women. I was taught by conceptual artists so I was attracted to ideas and their visual representation. I had the privilege of being taught by very gifted teachers, and that inspired my work.
Photography, for me, is a visual methodology which allows me to understand and learn about the world that surrounds me. All the work I have made considers fine art culture and its relationship to power. There are negative and positive effects to the way power intertwines with art, and uses aesthetics to legitimize its narrative.
NA: Do you think that pitting royal architecture against animals is a challenge to the power and authority of heritage sites? What do you aim to represent?
KK: Whether the work actually challenges power is in the mind of the beholder, since it shows the ambiguity and beauty of what power can build, design and purchase. There is a certain ambivalence about power in these images because clearly they celebrate Rajput and Rajasthani architecture and craft. This architectural splendor is the result of the Maharaja’s economic power. Famous artists of the time, miniaturists and musicians, were nurtured and patronised by the Maharajas, Nawabs and Nissams of long ago as they are today. The different schools of miniature painting have their distinctive styles, and these styles continue to develop in India. My work refers, and pays homage, to the exquisite detail found in Indian and Persian miniatures.
The birds and mammals inserted in the photographs link the Ramayana culture of Northern India to allegorical representations of femininity and masculinity that aim to disturb the spectator’s expectations by creating ‘visual’ disturbances in private rooms in palaces, some of which are now private museums. An example is The Flight To Freedom, where an elegant white egret strides gracefully through the Durbar Room of an old private family palace in Dungarpur. Dungarpur palace is one of the most magical sites I have ever visited and I could sit for hours watching the light move through the coloured glass windows, reflected off the mirrors embedded in the walls.
NA: Tell me a little about your trip to Rajasthan in 2008, which you have called ‘life-changing’. Where did you go, and why did you choose Rajasthan?
KK: In 2008, I travelled with a friend to sixteen different sites across Rajasthan, planned using the internet: Delhi, Samode, Ramgarh, Nawalgarh, Mandawa, Phalodi, Bharatpur, Chittor, Ramnakpur Tirka, Udaipur, Dungarpur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra … Life-changing because I discovered a complex and syncretic culture that totally fascinated me. I saw that India was changing rapidly, and with development the animals were already being cleaned out from cities, and buildings in Delhi knocked down or neglected. I had read William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and more recently Nine Lives, and I admired what he was doing for India, and I felt that perhaps somehow I could do the same visually. I had also read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in the 1980s, and the Latin American magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marques’ One Hundred Years of Solitude had been literature that I grew up with in Puerto Rico. I have been reading India’s foundation stories, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The challenge was to find a modern visual equivalent to miniature painting and to find the architectural sites across Northern India that reflected this hybridity.
Rajasthan was chosen because of its renowned palace architecture, but then I also discovered the chhatris (mausoleums), which are like magical cities honouring the Marwari kings. One of my images, called Life After Death, was photographed in Mandore Gardens in the chhatri of Ajit Singh.
I also discovered the Jain temples, and now when I travel to India I always make a point of visiting them. One of the temples that impressed me was Ranakpur Tirka. My dream is to be able to photograph this temple. Tripods are not allowed and it is practically impossible to gain permission.
On my journeys across India I met many kind and helpful ordinary people along the way; the drivers who drove me across Rajasthan showed me the villages and allowed me to taste the regional cooking at roadside eateries. The Aravali Hills are stunning, and I do hope mining concerns do not undermine forever the beauty of this landscape, which is part of India’s heritage and ought to be protected like the Himalayas in Northern India.
NA: Your work, it is said, explores Rajput heritage and its relationship to the female and the animal spheres. Tell me more about this. What got you interested in these topics?
KK: I am a feminist, and I firmly believe in equal rights for women and men of all social backgrounds and castes. Women and animals in Western culture, as seen through Christian heritage, have always been considered as subalterns to be owned, managed and often abused by power. This is not so different to the way Hindu castes in India and certain Muslims treat women, animals and tribal peoples.
NA: India Song is a look toward the past and a political commentary. Is it also a documentary of the present?
KK: Very much a documentary of the present, as these architectural sites are fragile, as is animal life. The Architectural Survey of India is doing a magnificent job restoring them, yet there is constant damage to and erosion of the buildings because of increased tourism. I do see these photographs as developing a new documentary poetics that uses aesthetics to make an appeal about particular social issues affecting India.
NA: Since India Song uses both digital and analogue photography, did you face any challenge with merging the two in one comprehensive whole?
KK: The process is very time consuming, since the negatives and positives have to be scanned and the animals are woven into the fabric of the digital image using Photoshop. It takes months sometimes to get an image to ‘work’. More recently I have begun to work solely with digital cameras using the amazing latitude offered by RAW files. I was stunned to realise that the quality of some digital SLRs is equal that of the precision obtained with a 5″×4″ Sinar camera.
NA: Where did you shoot the individual animals that you then inserted into royal surroundings?
KK: Many are found in zoos now, and also parks and nature reserves, and often in the sites themselves. I photograph the interiors using no additional light ‒ just available light ‒ and the exposures can be up to one minute long. The animals are photographed at a higher shutter speed to freeze their movement. Effectively, to get every highlight and shadow detail in both interiors and animals, I have to work with multiple exposure times. Animals are mostly photographed at different times and in different places and subsequently inserted into the architectural space. Many hours and days are spent considering each detail. The process is slow and laborious.
NA: How many times have you visited Rajasthan so far? What draws you to it?
KK: I have been at least eight times, and each time it changes and I find something extraordinary. When there are good rains the Thar desert blooms! I love the harsh beauty of the landscape and the hospitality of the people of whatever caste.
NA: You said that the contradictions in India (Bollywood and the Vedas; multicultural influences; fluidity) fascinate you. Please elaborate. What contradictions do you see in Rajasthan, especially concerning the heritage sites that you have chosen?
KK: Women’s roles are changing. More women are being educated and even forming their own businesses, yet the pull of traditional values and heritage may be difficult to negotiate. The ideals of Rama, the ideal son and husband, and Sita, the ideal of wifely devotion, are hard to live up to, especially with the economic hardships many women in India struggle with. The romantic sacrifices that women have made, such as the Juahar in the sixteenth century, are still glamourised in the figure of Rani Padmini in Mewari stories. The Dalits are still victimised in rural areas despite the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). Women have acid thrown in their faces or are burned because dowries are not considered sufficient. The great scholar Valmilki, creator of the Ramayana, was a Dalit, and things may be changing since Mayawati of the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) was elected in Uttar Praddesh. But human rights and women’s rights are constantly to be fought for as they erode very easily under corrupt governance.
NA: Tell me a little about how the Poddars supported and encouraged you. What was their contribution to your journey in photography?
KK: It was Abhishek Poddar, the Director of Tasveer Gallery, who encouraged me to extend the methodology developed in my European work to India. I knew that La Fontaine had read and been inspired by the Panchatantra stories, and by Aesop, who influenced his Fables. Abhishek Poddar’s enthusiasm for my work helped it become published and exhibited in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkatta and Bangalore, and this was consolidated with its recent success in Europe and the USA. The Poddars made me feel like a treasured member of their family and welcomed me into their home. Their home has become a research haven for me, where I can study and learn from their collection of books and art.
NA: You used a large-format Sinar 5″×4″ for India Song. Any reasons why you prefer this camera?
KK: The precision and detail that are possible, and the very high technical resolution it can achieve. More recently I have used a digital Nikon D3X camera that is delivering equivalent results. Technology is evolving rapidly, and it is important to keep learning and not to feel intimidated by the new developments. I have recently acquired a Phase One camera, which delivers images beyond the quality level of the old 8″×10″ cameras!
NA: Do you consider yourself to be a storyteller?
KK: As a storyteller using photography striving to tell stories yet untold, I use the camera as a tool to reinvent and reconsider myth and fable for contemporary times.
NA: You have spoken about the liberalisation of women in India. Do tell me more about your perspective on this and how it plays into your photography.
KK: Liberalisation of women in India has accelerated since Independence in 1947, but unequally. A report published by SEWA, or Self Employed Women’s Association, called Liberalization and the Woman Worker states:
We found that liberalization has caused an increasing inequality in employment opportunities and incomes. Economic opportunities created by the liberalization are highly unequal. Those better endowed, with more access to skills, to markets, and with more resources or better links internationally, have been able to benefit. For women at the upper income, upper-skill end, the quality as well as opportunities for employment have improved. For most women workers, however, the quality of employment is poor, without opportunities for skill development and moving up the ladder, and with very low income returns.
Globalisation has taken away many textile jobs, particularly when mechanization displaces women workers; also corporations may subcontract abroad, where cheaper labour rates are found. The craft sector has seen expansion in new employment opportunities for women, linking big traditional rural economies with metropolitan and global markets. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of craftspeople, mostly women, particularly in the rural, home-based craft sector. However, the average daily earnings of women craftworkers are low, around half of that paid to male workers. SEWA (www.sewa.org) are doing a great job in bringing a grassroots perspective through which to view development issues. They see ‘action-oriented research’ as the cornerstone of bringing women into the mainstream world of knowledge.
I can identify with women working in the Indian craft sector as I am a self-employed woman photographer running a small company, Karen Knorr Ltd, from my home and studio in London. I work mainly with local British suppliers, which include framers, printers, mounters and shippers, and employ one part-time project manager and assistant alongside several re-touchers and website designers to help me produce and ship work globally. I am fortunate to have the health, financial means and education to keep developing my skills to meet the market demands of the fine art photography sector worldwide. My work is effectively distributed through a network of galleries based in the United Kingdom, the United States and India. I am also part-time professor of photography at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Farnham, and have worked with many of my ex-students, training them and developing their photographic skills. I also have run three-day photography workshops in Spain, helping other aspiring photographers develop their projects.
NA: Tell me about how you came to work/collaborate with Tasveer and the National Institute of Design (NID). How was your experience?
KK: My colleague and friend, Anna Fox (Professor of Photography at UCA), established an exchange thanks to a PM12 Research Award between our graduate photography students in the UK and NID students, introducing my work to Abhishek Poddar. I subsequently met Doctor Deepak John Matthew (NID) at UCA and consequently also mentored and worked with the Lucida group of photographers based in Delhi: Mridul Batra, Arunima Singh and Suruchi Dumpawar. Anna and I are developing Global Archive Photography, a web journal created to foreground international photography debate and practice. I travelled to Ahmedabad this January to join a workshop, and to the Chaya International conference on Indian Photography at NID on the 1st and 2nd of February.
NA: What does the movie India Song and your collection of photography, whose title is inspired by it, have in common?
KK: With India Song (1975), Marguerite Duras was interested in developing a new language between film and literature that highlighted a subjective, feminine voice considering the end of British colonial presence in Kolkatta. I am attempting to develop, with my photography and video projects in India, a new poetics of the image considering the presence of the feminine and animal life in the Indian heritage.
NA: You say that the depiction of animals in your photography is inspired by fables as well as avatars. When did you learn about these, and what does this cultural history mean to you?
KK: Cultural history helps us understand the complexities of what is at stake in identity, and gives us a sense of purpose and an understanding of our place in the world as a form of guardianship. Taking care of cultural history, and its manifestations in poetry, music, art and architecture, helps us define our identity as part of a community, and this is increasingly important in a materialistic and consumerist world as it brings people together and can help make for a more tolerant society.
Animal life is part of our cultural fabric, and creates and sustains the forests and the beauty of the Indian landscape.
The fables, as re-told by La Fontaine in the seventeenth century, were inspired by Aesop, a Greek slave of the fifth century BCE. These stories were, of course, the product of world oral traditions told over and over, changing through time, and like the Panchatantra, they illustrate nisi, or the ‘wise conduct of life’.
NA: You have said in earlier interviews that you aim to create a dissonance ‒ the splendour of the past against the environmental and social decay of the present through your photography of juxtaposition.
KK: I am using a particular rhetoric of the image in order to contrast the animal’s presence with the splendour, and sometimes the patina of age, in the interiors of temples and palaces. Like in my previous European work Fables, the animal highlights the irreconcilable differences that continue to increase between culture and the natural world.
NA: The colours in your photographs are grand. Is it your conscious decision to use bright colour in your work?
KK: Yes, my aim is to record and enhance the colour, or rasa, of architectural design in India, which references both folk traditions found in the textiles of tribal peoples and the intense colours of the miniature paintings produced in Northern India during the Mughal/Rajput eras. This is echoed by the intense colours of the saris worn by village women in Rajasthan. The mirrors on tribal women’s dresses are echoed on the palace walls in the sheesh mahals.
NA: Tell me also about your future ideas for photography inspired by this region.
KK: Hundreds of havelis (mansions) are now abandoned, and there is an urgency to continue documentation of this now imperiled cultural heritage to add to the wonderful scholarship produced by Ilay Cooper. I travelled there in April 2011 with one of the members of Lucida, a collective based in New Delhi, and photographed havelis in different states of decay. Many have been abandoned, and some are restored as the Anandi Lal Poddar and Mararka Haveli museums, but more work needs to be done.
I would love to set up a photographer-in-residence programme in the Shekawati district in Rajasthan. International photographers would run workshops to encourage emerging Indian talent.
Nirati Agrawal supplemented her conversation with Karen Knorr by interviewing Abhishek Poddar, the Director of Tasveer Gallery in Bangalore, which represents Karen Knorr in India.
NA: What relevance do you think Karen’s work has in the larger body of work that showcases Rajasthan’s people and culture?
AP: Rajasthan has a rich history of art and culture, from symbolic folklore traditions and crafts to highly cultivated art forms. These are possibly the first things that come to mind when one thinks of the state. The textiles, jewels and craftsmanship are known throughout the world, and Rajasthan’s intricate architectural interiors are testament to the unparalleled workmanship that has thrived from time immemorial. In other words, there has been no shortage of art forms through which Rajasthan’s ancient way of life has been persevered.
Karen’s unique contribution to the artistic output of Rajasthan is her contemporary approach. Using the artistic tools of the twenty-first century ‒ the camera and the computer ‒ she references Rajasthan’s old art forms and myths and re-works these into pieces of contemporary art. In years to come, when historians look back at the art of Rajasthan, I imagine her work will be studied and revered.
India Song forms possibly the most important contemporary art project to emerge from the state since the new millennium, and it has put Rajasthan back on the map with regard to art.
NA: Do you think an ‘outsider’ like Karen can do justice to Indian heritage? Do you think she has a different perspective which may perhaps give her an advantage when it comes to portraying hovels (for example) in a new light?
AP: It often takes an ‘outsider’ to reveal aspects of our own culture which we might ourselves overlook. Karen has been working with photography since the ʼ70s, and her continued academic and artistic enquiries into world cultures ‒ from the homes of British aristocrats to the chateaux of the French elite ‒ all contribute to the way she approaches new work.
India Song is the product of much research, a creative mind and a genuine curiosity. Her knowledge and experience, therefore, do in some sense give her an advantage. She makes us look again at the splendours that are all around us, but reinvigorates these scenes with playful devices such as the inclusion of animals within the human sphere ‒ a juxtaposition we ourselves would perhaps not have dreamed of, or dared to realise. Also, in a strange way these animals do seem as if they belong there, for these palaces and courtyards had their share of elephants, cows, peacocks and monkeys.
NA: Personally, what do you think of Karen’s work? How did you come to meet her and how did you support her journey?
AP: I was introduced to Karen Knorr through my friend, the British photographer Anna Fox. Having been interested in both antiquities and contemporary art for many years, when I first saw her Fables work I was bowled over. I began my research, and found that her work was in the collections of some of the most important institutions around the world ‒ the Pompidou in Paris, the Cartier Foundation, the British Council and the Victoria & Albert Museum, to name a few. A meeting with Karen soon followed and we talked about exhibiting her work in India. It was through these discussions that the idea for India Song emerged. My respect for Karen as an artist led me to want to help in whatever small way I could, and so I set about getting her permission to photograph the interiors of Rajasthan’s glorious havelis and palaces, and introducing her to the Maharajas.
Being passionate about art in India, it was so very refreshing to see the result of this ‒ something which had as much impact on me as eighteenth-century Rajput miniatures.
Karen has always enjoyed success as an artist, and India Song has only acted to further cement her stature. The series has been exhibited the world over and picked up one of the highest accolades in the contemporary photography world: the Pilar Citoler Prize. Knorr has also recently been longlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and the Prix Pictet.
She continues to be eagerly collected by museums, members of royal families and private individuals, but I think her latest work holds an even more special place in the hearts of people like me ‒ those from Rajasthan.