Photographer Charles Freger’s latest book is an impressive attempt at documenting performers in ritual costumes across India
India up-close: Charkula dance in Mathura. (Photo: Charles Freger/Thames & Hudson)
Over the past two decades, Charles Freger has taken literally hundreds of portraits in many corners of the world. In portrait photography, the subject knows they are being photographed; they consent and participate, aware of the camera and the photographer, aware that they are presenting themselves as they want to be seen. Freger’s portraits are often of people in uniform or, as here, of people wearing ritual masks and costumes. This is an interesting take on portraiture, to present people not as they are always, but as they are in special moments. Aam Aastha, shot entirely in India, shows us people celebrating-it’s festival time in these pictures and we see ordinary people as dancers and performers playing roles, calling the gods to earth, mimicking sacred and revered animals, enacting beloved and well-known stories, stepping out of their lives and out of their mundane selves to become part of something transcendental, more significant. In these moments, we can believe that the three worlds come together, myths are alive, and gods, humans and demons inhabit the same plane of existence.
Since he captures his subjects in extraordinary situations and strange, often bizarre, garb, I asked Freger how he militates against the Orientalist gaze. “I think one answer is that I do it the same way, whether I’m in Japan, Europe or India. It’s the same process. The way I photograph-it’s almost like a protocol-I’m not getting into something for the ‘wow’ impact. I’m doing a project, a research.”
Why should we, as Indians, be excited by this book? After all, we encounter behrupiyas often, we see tiger dancers on the streets, we watch the Ramleelas, yakshagana drumbeats ring out through the night on the edges of cities, we return to our villages for theyyam and for bhuta-preta rituals in our ancestral homes. Some of us cosmopolitans might bring an ironic gaze to such practices, but Freger has a different angle on these moments of everyday life. “For me, this is not magical,” he says. “I photographed some people, most of whom are doing this as a job and are performing in the streets, in theatres, in the temple.” He continues, “I tried to stay as much as I could in the reality that there was a person standing in front of me. Not a godâ€æ someone.”
A close look at the photographs will show that a certain vulnerability lurks behind the swag that the subjects project. There are windows, chinks through which we can glimpse the person behind the mask or the elaborate costume. Freger unobtrusively suggests who the individual might be beyond the anonymity. He locates his subjects outside the physical environs of the festival/performance space-Manipuri dancers pose in green fields with the sky as their canopy, a blue-faced young Krishna sits on a wooden bench as his tired, all-too-human eyes search for something in the distance; Anuradha Roy, in her opening essay, asks us to notice the hardworking, mud-encrusted feet that hold up the human inside the costume.
At first glance, we could apprehend the portraits as ethnographic: descriptive of people and their cultures. But with identity and self-representation now being front and centre in cultural discourse, this is surely an outdated perspective. “My work is photographic,” says Freger. “Of course, it’s connected to the work of different ethnographers and anthropologists. And sometimes people contact me believing that my work is ethnographic. But it’s not, because what I’m trying to achieve first is a project based on photography. For me, doing this is an experience. It’s absolutely not the idea of someone who is judging. It’s more a question of being curious about the other. After a project like this, I would never consider myself a specialist in what’s happening here.”
A good photographer doesn’t just create a frame, they draw you into it, suggesting where you might turn your gaze, hinting at where the secret to the epiphany lies. Although he appears to capture the same objectivity, Freger disdains the lenses of Orientalism and ethnography. He does this by creating subtle disjunctions in the pictures-the field that holds the classical dancers, the tired eyes in a god’s face, the feet that have done more than dance for a living-and thus, subverts the effect of the image as a whole, removing it from the frame of Otherness and ‘difference’. We are fortunate that these pictures come to us in a book-we can attend to their details and extend the pleasure of seeing more and better.
Arshia Sattar is an award-winning author and translator whose work has focused on Indian mythology