“Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness?” — Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Dogs occupy a special place in our collective consciousness, and the sphere of human relationships. We associate them with several traits, primarily loyalty, unconditional love and playfulness. The world of competitive dog shows however, is funnily enough, a far more serious enterprise.
Dog shows, or to be more accurate, confirmation shows as they are termed, are essentially about one thing: how well dogs conform to being themselves. The first conformation show was organised in England in 1859; its practice exported to Indian soil by British expatriates, and encouraged by local aristocracy and royalty, the first dog show in India was not too far behind and held as early as 1896.
Photographer Karan Vaid, takes an affectionate lens to this unique world, travelling to dog shows across the country and documenting a subculture that despite this rich and long history, has remained largely unexplored.
With its genesis in personal history, Vaid’s ongoing series the Indian Dog Show Project is a colourful, paparazzo view of these niche events. Part one of his series showcased here, takes a look at modern Indian dog shows and manages to build a complex, composite of this world, that highlights its lighter side even while featuring the burgeoning industry it is today. Eschewing a regular documentary style for a more tabloid approach, allows Vaid to emphasise the serious celebrity culture visible in dog shows.
Part two of Vaid’s series, the inspirational root behind this project, consists of digitised family photographs from the 1980s and 1990s. These vintage photographs sometimes showcase a young Vaid, who recalls having spent much of his childhood travelling in the backseat of a car sandwiched between two dogs, attending dog shows across the country with his parents. While these photographs, being personal mementoes, are strikingly about the emotional bonds between man and dog, part one of the Indian Dog Show Project moves beyond nostalgia and emotion, to portray a far more nuanced reality — where affection though present, is held from taking centre stage, by elements of ownership and objectification. The candid reporting style also helps Vaid set up photographs that offer views of the power dynamics that operate between man and dog, owner and pet, and illustrate the business, as it were, of dog shows.
For participants today, it is not only a highly competitive sport with reputations on the line, but also the passport to big financial returns, should their breeding dogs place well. A Great Dane, owned by Delhi based entrepreneur Sanjay Kapoor was tagged for instance, after bagging three championship titles in a row, in 2013, as the most expensive dog in India — valued at 24 lakhs.¹ For a top dog such as this, breeding progeny and creating a lineage, become highly lucrative pursuits for owners.
The ‘dog game’, as it is now called, Vaid notes, has turned into a rather elaborate affair in India today with dogs even flown in internationally. Aside from exotic, expensive dog breeds, professional dog handlers are also flown in — their services engaged for the season by various Indian kennels. The competition is greater and fiercer and driven far more monetarily, than the time Vaid’s reminiscences of as a child.
Perhaps the best and most striking element of this photographic project is its playful, self aware gaze that melds the ironic with the earnest — allowing us to laugh at the seriousness competitors assume, even while appreciating their passion; and that brings together the flash and substance of the ‘dog game’ to show us a holistic view, rather than singular facet of its experience.