Mohini Chandra undertook an Asialink Arts Residency at Kriti Gallery and Residency in Varanasi, India, in 2016. Asia Options’ India Editor, James, caught up with Mohini from the UK – where she currently lives and works – to talk about her photography and how the Asialink Arts Residency in India helped her progress her ongoing ‘Paradise Lost’ project, which examines memory and visual articulations of identity within contemporary globalised cultures.

 

Mirrors. Image: Mohini Chandra
Mirrors. Image: Mohini Chandra

 

Mohini, what motivated your current project ‘Paradise Lost?’

When I was an art student I started looking at family albums and tried to think about my own background. I researched the history of indentured labor under British colonial rule, particularly the experience of people taken to Fiji from India to work in the sugar plantations – like my ancestors. I found it interesting that my family’s history had been affected by colonialism and disruption, and we couldn’t really trace our family’s history back to India because the records had been lost. I started noticing that a lot of family photographs that I looked at had the stamps of photographers’ studios in Fiji on the back.

So when I went to Fiji, I found a lot of studios that still operate there where the Indian community go to have their photographs taken. Yet at the same time, I went to museums and noticed the absence of photography regarding the experience of indentured labourers of Indian communities. As a person working with photography, that was really interesting to me, and the project ‘Paradise Lost’ is motivated by that experience.

 

What led you to apply for the Asialink Arts Residency in Varanasi?

The opportunity came up. I had previously received an Australia Council grant to go to Fiji and do some video photography work there. I saw the Asialink site and had been thinking about going to India for a while. I’d never been to India even though my family background was from there. I thought I should go, even though no one in my immediate family had been. Asialink had a list of places where people had been before and I kind of looked at that as a starting point.

I looked into Varanasi because it was close to Kolkata – well, not really, because India is huge, but relatively speaking. I also found out that Varanasi was used as a staging post by the British. People from villages and small towns would come through Varanasi and then be sent to Kolkata and then sent on to wherever indentured labourers would be sent to on ships: the West Indies, South Africa, and the Pacific. I also found out that my father’s family were from a town near Varanasi and Bodhgaya.

You can organise your own residency through Asialink. But it just so happened the place they had worked with before was the right location for me.

 

Mirrors. Image: Mohini Chandra
Mirrors. Image: Mohini Chandra

 

What are the benefits of the Asialink residency?

What’s really good about the Asialink residency is that it is funded, so it covers your flight, a bursary, and living expenses while in India. The residency in India itself charges a fee but your bursary covers that. This provides artists with a realistic opportunity to go because artists don’t always have that money available. When you do a project particularly like mine, which is very big and spans many countries and years, you need to apply for funding in stages.

Following the Asialink residency, I’ve also been able to apply for Australia Council Cite Residency in Paris to research the collections of the Musee du quai Branly.

 

Although it was your first time in India, did the work you made while in India fit within a progression of your continuing body of work and did it allow you to deepen your understanding of India?

Yeah, that’s right. All my work in Fiji had shown to me that, for the Indian community living in Fiji, India was an imaginary homeland and a space that people dreamed about. You’d come across photos of the Taj Mahal in photographic studios or painted backdrops of India. Bollywood cinema is really popular in Fiji, within both Indian Fijian and Fijian communities. I had a great sense of being in India when I was in Fiji because of the food, communities, and Fiji at times being an Indian space in the Pacific. In recent years, I’ve been making images that allude to that history in some way.

When I grew up in Australia in the 1970s in Brisbane, there were not many Indian people around but that changed. It was isolating culturally in some ways. In my 20’s when I came to the UK and there were massive culturally diverse communities, it was amazing to me.

From these experiences, I had a filtered sense of what India meant to me. But at the same time, from my experience of being in Fiji, I am part of these communities and I look like I could belong, yet at the same time, I don’t. I attended a lot of conferences in the UK a few years ago about the link between anthropology and ethnology, and obviously, places like Fiji have a great mistrust of anthropology because the people have been categorised, photographed and othered into racial categories in a colonial way. But they had these amazing photographs, which were collected by Europeans when they were there and have found their way into museums around the world. What art has been doing is trying to engage with other cultures. For people like myself who are from another culture, we are more like participants. So when I travel to Fiji, I’m part of that story and experience.

I was fascinated to go to India because I knew it was part of my cultural heritage yet at the same time I was from Australia, so I was interested in where I was situated in that. I didn’t know if I would feel like someone who had no connections with the country or quite connected to it. Although I was going to India to search for images and make videos to retrace the journeys of my ancestors, it was also a journey to my own experience and understanding of where I was placed.

I was fascinated to go to India because I knew it was part of my cultural heritage yet at the same time I was from Australia, so I was interested in where I was situated in that. I didn’t know if I would feel like someone who had no connections with the country or quite connected to it. Although I was going to India to search for images and make videos to retrace the journeys of my ancestors, it was also a journey to my own experience and understanding of where I was placed.

 

Filming in the market, Varanasi.

 

How would you describe the experience of living and working in India as part of the Asialink Arts Residency?

It’s hard to describe. It exceeded my expectations. It was wonderful in every way. All the things that people say about India are true, in that it is so overwhelming and there are all of those contrasts but also incredible beauty. It’s very alive and a culture that’s very much lived openly. It was a stark contrast to the UK from where I’d come from at the time.

 

On a practical level, what was the experience of working in India as an artist like? What if any support did you get through the residency?

I had two different experiences in India: one in Varanasi where I did the Asialink Arts Residency at Kriti Gallery. There I had a lot of support from the artists’ gallery I was with and they really looked out for me; and the other in Kolkata where I didn’t have that.

I went to Kolkata first. Through my connections, I was able to get in contact with another photographer who introduced me to other artists and locations, which was just great. I enjoyed this experience because I was able to find my work and make connections – which continue now – by myself. That continuing linkage and forming long-term relationships with the people I work with and the places I visit is really important to me.

In Varanasi, I had a studio at Kriti Gallery and Residency that I would go back to every day after photographing and filming. I was able to use visual cues from my time in Kolkata to further my work in Varanasi. Plus, I had the support network of the gallery who helped me with everything from drivers to take me around to different locations and other international artists at the studio who would sometimes come out with me. The gallery’s networks were really useful. One of the rickshaw drivers with the gallery – Anil – ended up being such a supportive guide for me throughout my time. He helped a lot from a practical level. The gallery was also a great space for me to meet other artists and talk with other artists about work. I knew I had limited time so I tried to get the most out of it that I could.

I also turned up at the university in Varanasi – the Banaras Hindu University – and found that there was a photography department. I met the professor there and ended up doing a lecture about my work. The students took me out to the river to help me take shots. I have now organised an online student exchange with the university and my students here in the UK that features their work and an exhibition in their respective cities. I have also been asked by the Banaras Hindu University to come back at any time and that is just great. I want to go back to make the most of my connection.

I found in India the way to do it is to turn up and be friendly and be honest about what you’re doing and if they can, people will be really helpful and it was heart warming. People in India really got my project – from the university, the market traders, the students – they got I was searching for my roots and family history.

 

Artists talk at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi

 

What’s your advice for artists or photographers who might want to undertake work in India – what should they be conscious and respectful of?

In photography, there are issues. One of the artists at the studio I was at spoke about her work like she was hunting for people as subjects. She was talking about photographing a child who was crying as an achievement. I just knew that you wouldn’t do that to a child in a developed country so why did this artist think it was okay to do that in a developing country and show such disrespect for people.

I know I photograph people but I am really conscious of being respectful of other people and their consent. If you have the conversation, most people are really happy to have their photograph taken. You need to be ethical. Because Europeans used to always be able to go wherever in the world and photograph whatever they wanted. The military and colonial administrators in India photographed people without their consent and I don’t want to repeat that of course. But photography has also been a way in which people have created their own identity – that’s the legacy I want to work in.

If I can photograph something symbolic and not to clichéd, then I will. India has been filmed and photographed in such clichéd ways – think the holy men of Varanasi or tropes about the colour or mystical nature of India. As an artist, I’m aware of that and wish to avoid that.

 

What is your best advice for those wanting to gain the most out of a residency or time in India?

It’s really important in my view to keep in touch with people from experiences such as these afterward because otherwise you have just taken what you want and then you leave. You wouldn’t do that to your friends back home so why do it when overseas? It actually enriches your experience to keep in touch and help each other out.

Think about the location you’re going to. Think about what level of support you need and make sure the gallery or residency you’re going to are able to provide that. Make sure you have all that support lined up before you leave so that you’re able to be mobile as soon as you arrive. I think it gave me that bit of confidence when I went which really helped.

If you’re going for an art project, just be aware too that you’re part of a great legacy of people who have gone to India to, in some way, take something from India – it’s inspiring, rich, colourful and seems easy to take. But instead think about what you can put back and what you can contribute to India. Think about what you’re hoping to gain from India and ensuring what you are taking is not a form of cultural appropriation but something which is a deeper connection. So read a lot before you go and learn about the country, its history and when you’re there connect with people and think about what you can learn from your experience.

But instead, think about what you can put back and what you can contribute to India. If you are hoping to gain something from India, try to ensure what you are taking is not a form of cultural appropriation but something which reflects a deeper connection. So read a lot before you go and learn about the country, its history and when you’re there connect with people and think about what you can learn from your experience.

 

Thanks so much for your time and generosity in sharing your experiences Mohini. Where can people find out more about your work?

My website, http://www.mohinichandra.com/, has information about my past and future projects.

 

Old photo studio, Varanasi. Image Mohini Chandra

For more information on arts residencies in India check out:

 

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Mohini Chandra is an artist and photographer. Her work deals with articulations of identity and globalized spaces, and the role of the photographic in relation to memory and migration. As a child Chandra spent time in Fiji and traveled widely with her family within the Indian-Fijian diaspora.

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