SO MUCH for the post-national, globalised world. Looking through hundreds of photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which will go on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this month, I find myself unable to follow the curators' lead. Wisely, they have chosen to group the images thematically, rather than according to nationality; but almost immediately I am looking hungrily for Pakistan (my homeland), largely ignoring India, and pausing longest at pictures of Bangladesh from 1971, the year in which it ceased to be East Pakistan.
It isn't that I don't find anything of interest in India or in photographs of it. But of the three nations, India has always been the most visually reproduced; many of the photographs taken there feel over-familiar. This is not the over-familiarity of a scene I've personally witnessed or inhabited: it is the compositions or the subject matter or sometimes the photograph itself that I feel I've seen time and time again. There is Gandhi stepping out of that train; there are the Mumbai boys leaping into a body of water on a hot day; there is the movie poster in the style of movie posters.
It is something of a surprise to find how intent I am on tracking down pictures of Pakistan. I have spent the greater part of my life there and will be returning shortly, but neither homesickness nor estrangement lie behind my wanting to see more. It is the role of photographs themselves in Pakistan that may serve as explanation. There is still very little appreciation of photo-graphy as an art form, so pictures tend to fall into three categories: private celebrations, news – and cricket. I have seen countless pictures of weddings, of burning buses, of a fast bowler winding his arm over his shoulder at the end of his run-up. Life's more quotidian details occur away from the lens, and so feel unacknowledged. Pakistan is a nation tremendously poor at acknowledging what goes on when it comes to individual lives, and bad at acknowledging the sweep of its own history. Great areas of the past and present remain away from the nation's gaze.
If there is one period in history from which Pakistan most adamantly averts its eyes, it is 1971. That year, Pakistan ceased to be a nation with two wings, and the state of Bangladesh came into being. And so I turn to the Bangladeshi photographers in order to fix my gaze on that blood-soaked epoch. I don't even realise I'm doing this, at first. I think I'm looking at a man's head, cast in marble; the sculpture is cheek-down amid a cluster of stones, almost camouflaged by them. Then I read the caption: "Dismembered head of an intellectual killed 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of Pakistani army. Bangladesh." It is extraordinarily eerie, and sad. There are other pictures of that period, too. Many, if not all, will probably be familiar to anyone from Bangladesh; none are part of Pakistan's consciousness.
Pakistan's erasure of its own muddled history is the subject of Bani Abidi's witty series of photographs, The Ghost of Mohammad Bin Qasim. In the nation's attempt to create an official history, which focuses on Muslims in the subcontinent (rather than Pakistan's geographical boundaries), the Arab general Bin Qasim (712 AD) was lauded for being the first Muslim to successfully lead a military campaign in India – even though he did little to consolidate his position. In Abidi's photographs, a man in Arab dress is shot at different locations in Karachi, including the mausoleum of the nation's secular founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The man is clearly Photoshopped in, deliberately so: he represents the attempt to graft a false history on to Pakistan, linking it to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.
While Abidi's work asks the viewer to engage with history and politics, there are others that draw a more visceral response. Mohammad Arif Ali's photograph of rain in Lahore captures the size and force of raindrops during the monsoons; the vivid colours at the edge of the frame also evoke how startlingly rinsed of dust the whole world looks. The boy darting out into the downpour, ahead of a line of traffic, his shalwar kameez plastered to his skin, is both lord of the world and a tiny creature, in danger of being crushed. It brings a familiar world vividly to mind. And yet, of course, exactly this scene could be played out – and photographed – in Delhi or Dhaka. It is foolish of me to think of it as quintessentially Pakistani. Sometimes these countries are three; sometimes one: the movement between three distinct nations and one region is impossible to pin down.
Away from the pictures of 1971, the Bangladeshi images are both unfamiliar (Munem Wasif's picture of a Burmese worker struggling through bushes in Bangladesh) and familiar: notably, Abir Abdullah's Women Working in Old Dhaka, which shows two women making chapatis together, though their positioning suggests distance rather than camaraderie. Is their lack of proximity a consequence of class or personality?
I turn back to the pictures of India and am almost immediately struck by Ram Rahman's Young Wrestlers, Delhi: two boys, each wearing a pair of briefs. It is mystifying that I didn't notice before how one of them stares assertively at the camera, his muscles relaxed, in the most casual of poses. The other's eyes are unsure, his muscles tensed, he is trying to suck in his stomach and puff up his chest, and there is a rip, it seems, in his briefs. The boys are touching but it's clear they aren't friends – not at the moment, at least. I worry for the tensed boy. He is going to lose his wrestling match; he is going to lose it badly.
And then there is Anay Mann's picture of a breastfeeding woman with headphones over her ears: she looks wary, her head angled away from the camera. Is there someone in the room, just out of the camera's reach? Or has she retreated into her own thoughts? And why is it that children's toys can add such menace to a picture, as is the case with the yellow smiling object, its head bobbing, at the edge of the image?
I would see this exhibition differently if it were in Karachi. Or Mumbai. Or Dhaka. In London, I am so far removed from these landscapes I'm aware of the photographs' "otherness". But there's also this: any kind of simultaneous engagement between these three nations, with so much in common and so much that sets them apart, is almost unheard of within the subcontinent itself. In Karachi, Dhaka or Mumbai, I would spend a very long time watching people look at these photographs. How we see ourselves; how we see each other – these two questions would be politically charged where they are not here. Strange that, only 63 years after the Raj, London should seem such a historically neutral venue, comparatively speaking. #
First published in The Guardian, January 6, 2010
Kamila Shamsie is the author of four novels, In the City by the Sea, Salt and Saffron, Kartography, and Broken Verses - all published by Bloomsbury. She lives in London and Karachi, and is presently teaching in New York State