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Camera South Asia: A Symposium on Cinema and Photography

General Programming

dateApril 27, 2023 timeThursday, 4:00pm–7:00pm EDT location Altschul Hall, Lehman Auditorium (Room 202), Barnard College
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Murthy Nayak Foundation
  • Barnard College
  • The Alkazi Collection of Photography
  • Mapin Publishing
  • Harper Design
  • South Asia Institute
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
B&W image of a woman dressed in a sari running

This symposium celebrates the launch of two new anthologies on South Asian photography and cinema, namely Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia (Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and HarperCollins Publishers India) and Bombay Talkies: An Unseen History of Indian Cinema (Alkazi Collection of Photography and Mapin Publishing) which together provoke a new look at questions of artistic practice and its relations to collaborative world-making, knowledge production and archival memory. With reputed specialists from art production, pedagogy, curation and publishing, this symposium broadly questions what it might mean to identify as “South Asian” through revisiting and re-envisioning our art historical contexts, re-suturing our frayed common genealogies, and affirming our allied arts practices that at times converge across aesthetic platforms. Join our esteemed panel of speakers--artists, scholars, curators, and filmmakers--as they discuss the histories and futures of lens-based practice in and on South Asia.

Bombay Talkies, launched previously at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Delhi in January 2023, presents rare behind-the-scenes photographs from the personal archive of the cinematographer Josef Wirsching who moved from Munich to Bombay during the Nazi takeover of film studios in Germany. Most of these photographs were taken in the 1930s and ‘40s when Wirsching was employed at the legendary film studio, Bombay Talkies Ltd. Shot across film sets and outdoor locations they convey a world of meaning that ran parallel to the world of the silver screen. As a specific genre, the “behind-the-scenes” photo expands the limits of the film frame by showing us that which lay just outside, adjacent to, and beyond the movie camera. Shot primarily on a Leica camera, and lovingly preserved by Wirsching’s grandsons, Georg and Josef (Jr.), these images not only unsettle the boundaries between film and photography, Indian and foreign, but also give us rare access to the aesthetic decisions, creative communities, and cross-cultural exchanges that were vital to filmmaking in late colonial South Asia.

The publication/reader, Unframed, on the other hand hopes to present the challenges of South Asian knowledge production drawn from images, and how they continually intensify, given the extent to which images may be productively and ethically produced in an era of volatile “post-truth” mass media/social media ethos. With an array of essays and interviews, the reader presents traditional and experimental practice/production, through deliberation, as well as through established and innovative scholarship, in order to reassess readings and understandings of “South Asia,” regardless of physical location. As co-chairs, we therefore imagine ways in which the symposium may profoundly connect the symbiotic colonial-postcolonial tensions that have seared their imprint into subcontinental consciousness.


Rahaab Allana is Curator/Publisher, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi. A Charles Wallace awardee and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (UK), he received his MA in Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and was Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Visual Anthropology at University College, London. He was Founding Editor of PIX, a themed digital publication that focuses on South Asian lens-based practices and production, and Founder of ASAP|Art (Alternative South Asia Photography/ Art), the region’s first app for presentation and discussion of contemporary creative work. Allana works nationally and internationally with museums, archives, cultural initiatives and institutions, universities and festivals.

Iftikhar Dadi is John H. Burris Professor and Chair of the Department of History of Art and Director of the South Asia Program at Cornell University. He researches modern and contemporary art from a transnational perspective, with an emphasis on methodology and intellectual history, and a focus on South and West Asia. Another research interest examines the film, media, and popular cultures of South Asia. He has authored The Lahore Effect: Cinema Between Realism and Fable (2022), Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (2010) and edited The Lahore Biennale Reader 01 (2022) and Anwar Jalal Shemza (2015).

Noam M Elcott is Associate Professor for the history of modern art and Director of the Center for Comparative Media at Columbia University. He is also an editorof the journal Grey Room. Elcott is the author of the award-winning book Artificial Darkness: An Obscure History of Modern Art and Media (University of Chicago Press, 2016; paperback 2018), as well as essays on art, film, and media published in leading journals, anthologies, and exhibition catalogues. His current book projects are ArtTM: A History of Modern Art, Authenticity, and Trademark and Status, Photography, Modernity: August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century.

Chitra Ganesh is a Brooklyn-based visual artist whose work encompasses drawing, painting, comics, installation, video art, and animation. Through studies in literature, semiotics, social theory, science fiction, and historical and mythic texts, Ganesh attempts to reconcile representations of femininity, sexuality, and power. absent from the artistic and literary canons. She often draws on Hindu and Buddhist iconography and South Asian forms such as Kalighat and Madhubani, and is currently negotiating her relationship to these images with the rise of right-wing fundamentalism in India.

Sudhir Mahadevan is Associate Professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle, as well as Adjunct Professor in the South Asia Center at the university’s Jackson School of International Studies. A graduate of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, he received his MA and PhD in Cinema Studies from New York University. He is the author of A Very Old Machine: The Many Origins of the Cinema in India (SUNY Press, 2015; Permanent Black, 2018), an innovative study of the interface between Indian colonial/ postcolonial modernity and cinema as a developing technology/creative practice that profoundly shaped and expanded Indian popular culture.

Bakirathi Mani is Professor of English and Co-Director of the Tri-College Asian American Studies Program at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Unseeing Empire: Photography, Representation, South Asian America (Duke University Press, 2020), and Aspiring to Home: South Asians in America (Stanford University Press, 2012). A scholar of Asian American studies and postcolonial studies, she works across visual, historical, ethnographic and literary archives to examine how South Asian diasporic identities and communities are created and embodied.

Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s photo-based work draws on old photographs to re-examine historical narratives in both the US and South Asia. Her work is a blend of still and moving imagery that shifts the viewer’s perspective to question established and marginalized histories. Matthew’s recent solo exhibitions include the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada, Nuit Blanche Toronto, the Newport Art Museum and sepiaEYE, NYC. She has also exhibited her work at the RISD Museum, Newark Art Museum, MFA Boston, MFA Houston (TX), Victoria & Albert Museum, 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2018 FotoFest Biennial, 2009 Guangzhou Photo Biennial, as well as at the Smithsonian.

Debashree Mukherjee (Heyman Fellow 2022-2023) is an Associate Professor of film and media at Columbia University in New York. Her first book, Bombay Hustle: Making Movies in a Colonial City (Columbia University Press, 2020) tells the story of Bombay cinema’s transition from silent cinema to the talkie era. Bombay Hustle narrates this early history of Indian cinema as a history of material practice and centers the laboring body of the cine-worker. In this, Debashree was inspired by her own experience as a cameraperson and AD in Bombay in the early 2000s. Debashree has published several journal articles on film history, labour, gender, and ecocriticism, including the award-winning essay, “Somewhere Between Human, Nonhuman, and Woman: Shanta Apte’s Theory of Exhaustion” (Feminist Media Histories, 2020).

Mira Nair (Closing remarks) is an Academy-Award nominated director best known for her visually dense films that pulsate with life. Her debut feature, Salaam Bombay! (1988) won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, followed by the groundbreaking Mississippi Masala (1991), the Golden Globe & Emmy- winning Hysterical Blindness (2001) and the international hit Monsoon Wedding (2001), for which she was the first woman to win Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion. A fiercely independent filmmaker, she then made Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012), Queen of Katwe (2016), and A Suitable Boy (2020).

Image courtesy The Wirsching Family/Alkazi Collection of Photography.