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01 December 2023

A history of India, told in pictures

The photographs at The Empty Quarter show, such as this one by Margaret Bourke-White, a poignant portrait of India. (SUPPLIED)

By Keith J Fernandez

Walking into The Empty Quarter Gallery at the Dubai International Financial Centre is like stepping into another era altogether. For on its walls are yellowing images taken in 19th century India, images of an India that are completely at odds with the roaring superpower shaping world markets and impacting today's business world.

These are mystic, exotic images that in many cases fit completely with long-cherished clichés of the country – you can expect your classic scenes, of pilgrims bathing in the sacred Ganges and of brightly coloured bejewelled rulers. But be prepared, too, for your senses to be assaulted by stark, searing images that cut to the quick.

Gallerist and Exhibition Curator Elie Domit says the show is part of a mission to bring art to more people. "Photography is less elitist than the other arts, it's more accessible," he says, explaining how he wants the gallery to function as a public space where people can explore ideas about art.

Sacred Sight of India is the first major exhibition of photography to be held at The Empty Quarter. It took Domit five months to put together. There are 72 vintage and contemporary pieces on show by 15 different photographers that document India's phenomenal transition over the past century.

All are signed by the photographers and Domit says he's particularly pleased about the fact that the prints are not recent, digital versions of iconic pictures.

"They were printed at the same time the pictures were taken, not like today, when we have scans of everything. So they are an opportunity for collectors but also a visual treat for those who would like to start a collection." Prices ranging from $600 (Dh2,200) to $20,000 put them within reach of everyone. "Any cheaper would be Ikea," he says.

Among the highlights are a series of works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was so fascinated by India on a first visit in 1948 (when he took some of the most iconic images of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination) that he went back and forth several times over the course of 28 years.

Three pictures from 1948 are on loan from the Howard Greenburg Gallery in New York. The photographer's estate is tightly controlled, so the fact that there are any images here at all is remarkable.

Alongside an iconic image of India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru – that speaks volumes about the country's place in the world today – is a photograph of a group of veiled women gazing out over a Kashmir valley. Taken in 1948, it could have been taken anywhere, at any time in the last century, in Central Asia.

Those anonymous women with seemingly nothing to do, are worlds away from Mary Ellen Mark's Falkland Road images, which are taken in the seventies and are a window to the hard-nosed struggle that is life in India today.

Other pictures will resound particularly with UAE residents, many of who moved here when they were evicted from their homes during India's independence in 1947, when the British India Empire was brutally partitioned and some 12.5 million people, displaced.

One image, by Margaret Bourke-White, the first female photojournalist on Life magazine, shows a line of eastward-bound Sikhs migrating to their new homeland – barefoot, their clothes filthy from many days' walking, with all their possessions on their heads and children on their shoulders and in their arms.

Equally appealing is a picture of boats and birds off Mumbai's Chowpatty beach. Taken in 2003 by the American photographer Betsy Karel, it draws the expat viewer in, a timeless image of home.

Sacred Sight of India is on show until February 5 at The Empty?Quarter Gallery in the DIFC. Call º04 323 1210


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