This work tells the story of my lifelong dream of exploring India, the land of my father’s birth. He died without telling me much about the culture in which he grew up or the story of his early life there. As a child of mixed British and Indian heritage, I witnessed and took part in post-colonial battles playing themselves out on a domestic scale. Growing up in the United States, isolated from Indian culture fostered the cultivation of imaginative fantasy about my father’s country that ripened from a steady diet of exoticized Western media accounts. None of this prepared me for the discovery of the circumstances that drove my father away from his family as a teenager, or the masala mix of complexity, misery and beauty of contemporary India that I finally had the opportunity to see for myself. Having now made several trips, and collected a wealth of photographic images, videotape, and journal writings, I am shaping this material into a body of work that connects and contrasts my youthful fantasies of India with my adult experience building a relationship with the land of my ancestry.
Drawing from documentary, illustrative, advertising, sacred, and secular imaging traditions, I juxtapose images from different times and places, mythical and real, to create a visual narrative both imagined and lived. By collaging appropriated popular Indian “calendar art” imagery of Hindu deities into my photographs, I am referencing contemporary clashes of values and cultures that are occurring on the subcontinent. By removing these printed gods from spiritual contemplation in sylvan glades and temples, and bringing them into the chaotic capitalist hurly burly that is contemporary India, I want to show how the Hindu pantheon, representing an imperturbable and entirely nonwestern view of reality really do walk the streets of postmodern India. Their presence is palpable in the integration of spirituality into the country’s daily life. India also worships newer Deities with as much fervor as the old. The loosening of government control on foreign investment in the early 90s led to a continuing economic boom in India and the meteoric rise of a huge new middle class. Western materialism and the mass appeal of flavor-of-the-month Bollywood icons have added another vibrant layer to India’s visual culture. The iconography of consumerism and media celebrity often borrows from that of the ancient gods. These recent manifestations of India’s striving for an earthly paradise have also found a place in my art. As I was dreaming of India, it turns out that India has been dreaming of the USA.
For me, the complex history of these images signifies the emergence of my own identity, a slow process of assimilating influences from both cultures. I use these as a kind of subversive bridge between cultures, doomed to different interpretations by individuals on either side of the east-west divide. Finding some way to reconcile these differing perspectives inspires this creative project.
Neil Chowdhury is an artist working in photography and digital media. His work explores the relationships between individuals, their societies, and environments in different cultures. Currently, he is working on a project exploring his Indian heritage, entitled “Waking from Dreams of India.”
Chowdhury has been awarded the 2011 Light Work Grant, a 2008 NYFA SOS Grant, and the 2005 SPE Gary Fritz Imagemaker Award. His photography and digital video works have been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. His works are included in the permanent collections of Light Work Community Darkrooms, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, and the William Benson Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut. He is currently an assistant professor and director of the photography program at Cazenovia College, Cazenovia, New York. He has also taught at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan; and the University of Washington, Seattle.
Chowdhury received his M.F.A. in photography at the University of Washington. Chowdhury also worked for several years as an industrial photographer for Ford Motor Company, and does freelance travel, editorial, and commercial photography.