June 24, 2019

Alan Teller’s art exhibit explores anonymous World War II photos from India

An article by Manzar Imam (@manzarnaama)

“Following the Box is a unique art exhibit that explores cross-cultural connections, unravels some historical horrors, and gives spectators liberty of diverse interpretations.” — Manzar Imam

Alan Teller

Alan Teller

New Delhi: Thinking out of the box is what makes any work of art great. It is made even greater when it gives imagination a free flight. That is the lesson I drew from an ongoing exhibit called “Following the Box” here at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) that began Monday, January 11, 2016.

The curator of this “Out of the Box” thinking art is Alan Teller, who together with his wife, tries to explore an archive of anonymous photographs from India which the duo collected during an estate sale in the United States of America 28 years ago.

Following the Box” is actually based on having found a box, the photographs and negatives made in India at the end of World War II. For Teller, the story began two decades ago. But for any art aficionado, including Teller, its genesis lies in the most horrific part of world history.

The story goes: An estate-sale find shoebox filled with old photographs and negatives made in India in 1945 leads a Chicago couple (Alan Teller and Jerri Zribal) half-way around the world. As they “follow the box” to try and unravel the mystery behind who took these compelling photos and for what purpose, they gather together contemporary Indian artists who also draw inspiration from these images, and create new works of art in response.

A US army man in rural West Bengal, towards the end of World War II, took these photographs which are being exhibited in the US and India, and they are being interpreted differently by different visitors. Each one sees a meaning which could be interpreted from a different angle from the other.

Teller and Zribal’s search leads to memories which bring the gory past alive. The collection includes a photograph of a nonagenarian South Indian man whose family recognized him. They started weeping so inconsolably that it even moved Teller and others present there. However, despite getting into the emotional terrain, Teller was content to have revived the memory of a family whose great grandfather’s photo all its surviving members could see. “We did some research and we realized that the picture was from Bengal. Who took the picture and why was not our primary concern,” says Teller.

The idea is to follow the box and to “appreciate the power of the photography to create stories and to allow you to interpret things in different ways”. We got 10 Indian artists joining us (my wife and I) to explore the different possibilities and complications.

Following the Box is a “visual storytelling across space, time and culture, a mystery tale of old photographs and new artistic interpretations.” It is an “exhibit of aesthetic and cross-cultural exploration of historic imagery, a celebration of the universal power of photography to elicit memory and spark conversation”. Teller’s idea has found resonance.

For example, Swarna Chitrakar’s painting has a parallel poetic narration which echoes similar emotions as that of the Box. She paints long scrolls, composing and singing songs to narrate the drawings. The woman holding Chitrakar’s paintings in a video sings in a sonorous voice expressing wonder of a strange photograph which captures the story of Midnapore in West Bengal, during the pre-Independence India, which was hugely affected by the events of World War II. Repeated rendition of “Ajab photo na” evokes a deep sense of the past.

About the connectivity, Teller says that he considered himself fairly well read but knew nothing about the famine in Bengal. Nothing is simple. There are some evils and there is no question about it that war is an evil. One of the things that points to the politics is that as the world in many ways shrinks, we really have to allow diversities and accept them. We don’t necessarily want to see things the same way.

Perceptions are different. Any person who sees them will see them differently. You will see it differently. What an Indian person sees in this photograph is not necessarily what I see.Painting-by-Alan-Teller

When asked how certain is it that the photographs were from India, the affable Teller, who is also an anthropologist, says that even he does not know. It took several years of research. I was teaching a class on anthropology and photography in a college of Chicago. It was famous anthropologist Ralph Nicholas, who has written several books and has made over fifty trips to India, who was able to “point out very specifically that the box was from India”.

About comparative scenario of art in the USA and India, Teller says that in one sense it is much worse here and in one sense it is much better. It is worse here because of “cracking down and setting limits,” which is very bad. We don’t have that in America. On the other hand, in America there is tremendous competition and artists don’t cooperate, but here there is lot of cooperation and artists work together. Americans have an arrogance that is painful and embarrassing, he adds.

Constraints that artists face in America are entirely financial; grants are not as much as they used to be, that’s why we need to raise some money.

Only a very small number of artists are able to make good money in the US. We are trying that somebody in Indian government or in American government or some corporate [houses] support us hoping to do business in India. Teller informs that they opened it last year in Kolkata and “it was spectacular” and they were covered in about 20 newspapers. Over two thousand people saw the exhibition, he says. His eyes gleam with joy and hope.

Note: The exhibit, which also had a film screening based on the exhibit on January 22, continues at the IGNCA, Janpath, until January 31, 2016.

About the author:

Manzar ImamManzar Imam is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. He divides his time between writing and research and follows his heart to celebrate India’s diversity of art, culture and tradition.




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