I’m not sure where I saw Vikram Kushwah’s photographs, but I do remember which one I’d seen. This one:
It was the second photograph I’d seen in a week that had a floating model and books. The first was a set of photos by photographer Lissy Elle Laricchia. I’ve no idea who came up with the idea first, Kushwah or Laricchia. While Laricchia has an entire series with her floating models, Kushwah’s subjects only hover in mid-air occasionally if his website is any indication. A fair chunk of Kushwah’s photography is unremarkable (if you go to his website, you can safely skip browsing through “Faces” and “Flutter”). But “Ofelea”, “Secret Places” and “Memoirs of Lost Time” have some very pretty images in them. These series are determined to be dreamy and surreal. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if most of the photographs look like they’ve been Instagrammed. On occasion it works, like the shot of the woman with the balloons tied to her waist in “Ofelea” or the girl holding up a mirror in “Memoirs of Lost Time”. Apparently this last series is intended to be “a documentation of sorts“, which recreates childhood memories of eight creative personalities. It’ll probably end up being a book that meets the approval of those who are in young Alice’s camp and believe the best books are picture-heavy.
I realise it’s become passé to feel intrigued by a desi reference, but I’m an old woman and old habits die hard. So obviously, I Googled Kushwah. Actually, what made me go to Google was a comment that a friend made upon seeing Kushwah’s photographs: “You’d never guess an Indian took them. There’s nothing desi in it, is there?” My friend meant this as a compliment but it made me think of this transcribed conversation, in which author Don Lee said,
I’d like to see us get to the point where Asian American authors can have Asian American characters and a big deal isn’t made about it, or at least so it’s not the first thing mentioned. When I think of, say, Gary Shteyngart, Nicole Krauss, Michael Chabon, and Aimee Bender, I don’t think of them as Jewish writers who write about the Jewish experience. I think of them as good writers who write interesting books, period.
But I have sometimes wondered how much of the ghettoization of Asian American writers has been self-inflicted. Maybe the onus is on us to branch out more from writing about race and identity, immigration and assimilation, or setting our stories in the ancient hinterlands of China or Japan or Korea. I think Kazuo Ishiguro, one of my heroes, is a good model. His best work has nothing to do with Japan or being a 1.5 Japanese Englishman.
Still, as much as I admire Ishiguro, and as much as I laud Chang-rae Lee for what he did with Aloft, I feel queasy about the idea of having non-Asians taking center stage in one of my books. I would feel guilty about it, as if I were trying to deny my ethnic heritage, even though this is precisely what I am suggesting we should be free to do.
It wasn’t so much the absence of a tint of desi brown in Kushwah’s photography that bothered me as much as his elaborate and laboured attempts to obscure identifying markers and to create imagery that tried desperately to be blandly white. I rapped my own knuckles for being presumptuous.
Then I read an old interview of his in Amelia’s Magazine in which the New Delhi-born Kushwah said the following:
How much of your Indian heritage can be found in your work?
None. My formative years, from when I was two up until sixteen, were spent in a boarding school. Although it was in India it was a typically English school, maybe because it was founded by an English lady during the British rule during 1937. Though I come from a very traditional Indian family, my roots actually took shape at school where I spent two-thirds of every year since I was thirteen.
Do you think living in London has inspired your work in any way?
There’s so much for this ‘mental space’ to soak up here. The English countryside takes me back to my school days, back to my storybooks about pastoral landscapes and wooden cottages surrounded by forests and meadows, peasants and farmers.
The school he’s talking about is Welham’s Boy’s School, I suspect (in case anyone was wondering). Its believed to be among Indian’s most posh schools. The alumni tend to have a sense of entitlement and snark oozing out of them, which frequently makes me want to box their ears. One of them is the person who argued with me that education was a business and schools shouldn’t be obliged to give poor/low-caste students any sort of preferential treatment.
Coming back to Kushwah. So, India — the country in which he has lived, presumably, for the better part of his existence — doesn’t appear in his work at all, but there’s “so much” to “soak up” in London, his new home. And the English countryside takes him back to the books he read in school. However, the Himalayas he had around him during his boarding school years haven’t impacted his imagination. The culture he was born into hasn’t influenced his work. Instead, he tries to establish connections between himself and that decidedly English, Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais.
This kind of valiant attempt at blanching one’s brown-ness annoys the bejesus out of me. It’s not just the fact that he says India hasn’t influenced his work, but also that he seems to take pride in this. He feels none of the doubt that Don Lee articulates or even a smidgeon of hesitation. Why? Because he’s essentially more of an Englishman, with the pastoral landscapes he imagined as a schoolboy and the affinity that he feels for London. Not a dude from Delhi. Of course not.
And in stark contrast to Kushwah’s infuriating and idiotic brown sahib behaviour, you have this absolutely fantastic series by the Turkish illustrator/artist Murat Palta who created posters for classic movies in the style of Islamic miniatures for his graduation project. Alien and Star Wars imagined as traditional miniatures? The Godfather translated to Baba and its story told in a single painting that’s rich with humour, technique and complete cookiness? Yes, please.