You think India, you think Slumdog Millionaire, crowds, colours, and curry. These are our Western preconceptions and admittedly, we have massively commercialised the Indian way of life. Bollywood films, Indian sitcoms and even the vast consumption of Indian food have played their part in projecting our stereotypes onto this still fragile country. Raghu Rai’s exhibition tries to shatter our distortions as he takes India as his canvas. What better place to unveil his work than Hyson Green in Nottingham, which houses a thriving multicultural community?
The sound of a tune being played on a fife welcomed us into the building. You would be forgiven for being as confused as we were. Is this part of the exhibition? Is this a random man with an instrument? Do we just stand here? The man in question was the Artist in Residence, ‘Blackfeather’, who led us into the gallery before agreeing to be interviewed. The self-confessed “human installation” compliments Rai’s work perfectly. He admits that he felt a deep connection to the project because it reminded him of his Indian roots. New Art Exchange itself, he said, is key to the exhibition as its location allows for India to coincide with Nottingham’s natural surroundings during the season of growth and fertility.
Whichever way you walk around the gallery you are introduced to Rai’s black and white photographs first. The lack of colour in these pieces makes them seem unimportant, preliminary pieces. However, Rai has specifically removed colour from his photos in order to eradicate our preconceived stereotypes, before introducing us to his India. Only when we have accepted the loss of colour does Rai’s bursting ‘feature wall’ reintroduce it to us, now trusting that we will see India for what it is to him and not with the glossy finish the Western media gives it; now trusting that our eyes will see past the rainbow of colours to the substance within.
It is clear what attracts Rai to take his photos: the people of India, specifically their eyes and facial expressions. They are at the heart of his project, the unapologetic reality of Indian culture. Unlike films such as Slumdog where the audience is angled into sympathy for the poorer population, Rai candidly presents India as it is for rich and poor: no embellishments, no decorations, no exaggerations. This in itself is not an unhappy thing. The atmosphere of the gallery was overwhelmed by the juxtaposed emotions of Rai’s subjects. The animation in a child’s smile lights up one colour photograph, whilst its neighbour shows the haunting eyes of a sole figure by contrast.
Overall, for roughly two hours we escaped downtown Nottingham and were transported into the vivacious, noisy streets of India. We visited spice markets, rode on scooters through the city and battled through the crowds. We also took a little bit of India with us when we left, both through Blackfeather’s wacky ties with the project and through our own interpretations. Rai isn’t trying to give us a fixed opinion of India nor is he trying to taint ours in any way. He is simply providing us with windows so we can peer through and catch a glimpse of the lives of these wonderful, ordinary people in all their layers and complexities.
Grace Mitchell and Chloe Langtree