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The following is a review, by Holland Cotter, in the New York Times, of the exhibition "India: A Celebration of Independence, 1947-1997". The exhibition was a joint venture of the Aperture Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and was curated by Michael Hoffman. It began with photographs by Sunil Janah and Henri Cartier Bresson from the India of the 1940's, followed by more recent photographs of India taken by many other photographers.
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The New York Times

July 25, 1997, Friday

Visions of India, Sensual and Stark

This is the summer for a passage to India, and anyone wanting to make the trip without straying far from home need only go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a vibrant observation of the 50th anniversary of the freedom of India and Pakistan from colonial rule is under way.

Not only has the museum put together a sprawling and thought-provoking show of modern photographs of India, it has also, for the first time in more than 20 years, reinstalled its permanent collection of South Asian art to highlight a handful of superb recent acquisitions.

The main event, though, is ''India: A Celebration of Independence, 1947-1997,'' some 250 photographs organized by Michael E. Hoffman, adjunct curator of photographs at the museum. The show is scheduled to tour the United States, Europe and India over the next two years.

It's an ambitious exhibition, and one that inevitably prompts basic questions: Does a show that interweaves images of violence and beauty, humor and grinding poverty constitute a celebration, a searching critical essay or both? And in a gathering where fewer than half the 22 photographers included are Indian-born, exactly whose version of India is on view?

The exhibition provides no clear answers. Instead, it floods the eye with an eclectic survey of pictures that manages, by and large, to sidestep cliches -- travel-brochure exoticism, New Age mysticism, horror-story gloom -- and create a texture that at least approximates the elusive, contradictory temperament of India.

Mr. Hoffman begins his show on a historical note with the work of two photographers, Sunil Janah from India and Henri Cartier-Bresson from France, who were on the scene in the days before and after Aug. 15, 1947, the official date of the country's independence from Britain.

Mr. Janah's 1946 portrait of Mohandas K. Gandhi seated, head bowed, before a crowd in Bombay, is one of the show's unforgettable sights, an emblem of the marriage of politics and prayer with which this man set India on the path to self-government. The tactical balance Gandhi struck was a delicate one; it didn't last. In Mr. Janah's 1948 photo of people filling the streets of Calcutta at the news of Gandhi's assassination, a charge of barely suppressed agitation all but crackles in the air.

Mr. Cartier-Bresson witnessed the same events, and his extended document of Gandhi's funeral in New Delhi is as powerful as photojournalism gets. In distance shots and close-ups, he captures an epochal gesture of communal mourning that simultaneously had the intimate, heart-wrenching immediacy of private grief.

From this point, the show quickly moves forward in time to the complex events of the present. Robert Nickelsberg, an American journalist living in New Delhi, documents the burgeoning influence of the conservative Hindu nationalist movement. And the young Bombay photographer Swapan Parekh contributes evocative depictions of the shadowed, marginal existence of the wives and children of anti-nationalist terrorists in the contentious Punjab.

The single most sustained political statement in the show, however, comes in a gallery given over entirely to the work of the Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado, whose dozens of anthracite-dark pictures of Indian laborers seem, at least at a glance, to merge into a blur of anonymous bodies and chaotic visual incident.

In fact, a slow look reveals much more: the expressive individual faces of men in an open-air market, the fluid gestures of shantytown children delightedly posing for a group portrait. But the perceptual lag built into Mr. Salgado's work is instructive. It is a reminder both of the blindness and invisibility that cultural differences can produce and of photography's signal achievement in recording lives and histories that other art forms have tended to ignore.

These lives are, of course, staggering in their variety, and the spectrum traced by ''A Celebration of Independence'' is broad indeed. In some cases, the mesmerizing strangeness that India holds for Western eyes comes to the fore, as in Mary Ellen Mark's vignette of a snake charmer nonchalantly introducing his infant son to a cobra, or in a picture by Steve McCurry of railroad workers intently going about their work, oblivious to the Taj Mahal, which shimmers like a mirage behind them.

Many of the really revelatory pictures, though, the ones that conform least to expectations and mix humor and affection with level-eyed critical discernment, are produced by Indian-born photographers. Ketaki Sheth's determinedly unpicturesque shots of a street wedding fall into this category, as do Pamela Singh's photos of women, from a lingerie-clad fashion model to a squad of female air force helicopter pilots in training.

And one of the exhibition's high points is an exceptional series of black-and-white pictures by Dayanita Singh that reveal middle-class urban families at home, cross-dressed eunuchs wafting raffishly through the New Delhi streets and Bombay film stars being given last-minute dance lessons before the cameras roll. In Ms. Singh's hands, this improbably mixed company becomes an object lesson in the way fantasy and everyday life interact.

Her photographs, like those of most of her colleagues, are urban in setting and secular in subject, though spirituality in various guises weaves through the show. It is there in the figure of Gandhi, in the dust-coated miner whom Mr. Salgado turns into a wandering holy man with a blazing lamp and in the joyous, festive picture by Raghu Rai of the Hindu goddess Durga being worshiped in a Calcutta shrine.

The Durga in Mr. Rai's photo is a modern one, an ephemeral, decorative concoction of paper and paint and clay. But one can see another figure of this goddess, a glorious ancient carving in stone, in the Philadelphia Museum's permanent galleries of Indian art, just upstairs from the photography show.

These galleries -- which include a reconstructed 16th-century temple hall from Madurai, the only example of Indian stone architecture in a museum in the United States -- were for nearly four decades under the curatorial supervision of the eminent art historian Stella Kramrisch (1896-1993), a pioneer and legend in the field who bequeathed choice objects from her own collection to the museum.

Her successor, Darielle Mason, has smartly refurbished and rearranged the galleries, giving pride of place to Kramrisch pieces that have only recently made their museum debut.

There are wonderful things here: a 5th-century Buddhist deity who seems to sway back in a gentle swoon against his halo; a voluptuous 11th-century temple dancer from Rajasthan, her hair caught up in a heavy bun, one extended finger touching her breast; and the Durga, dating from the 9th century, a protectress locked in battle with the buffalo-headed demon twisting at her feet.

India still has its guardians and demons, though some of them have changed form and even meaning over time. It's possible, for example, to see the sultry film actress in Dayanita Singh's photo as an updated version of Kramrisch's blithe dancer, or the avid air force pilots picture by Pamela Singh as a new generation of Durgas, ready to meet any threat.

What might that threat be? Poverty, divisiveness and the inertia of despair are among the demons that post-colonial India continues to struggle with. For that reason, among others, the India portrayed in the Philadelphia photographs feels far less like a finished product than a work in progress, but a vital, vulnerable and precious one, worth a long, long season of celebration.

''India: A Celebration of Independence, 1947-1997'' remains at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, through Aug. 31. The exhibition, which is supported by the Ford Motor Company, will travel to the Royal Festival Hall, London, Nov. 28 to Jan. 18, 1998; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, May to June 1998; the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Sept. 4 to Nov. 15, 1998; the Knoxville Museum of Art, Dec. 18, 1998 to February 1999, and the Chicago Cultural Center, Oct. 30 to December 1999.

Published: 07 - 25 - 1997 , Late Edition - Final , Section C , Column 1 , Page 24

Copyright The New York Times Company 1997

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