Book Excerpt: ‘Unframed: Speculating Image Practices in South Asia’ by Rahaab Allana

The conceptualization of Unframed rests on my role as archivist-curator-custodian of an image archive (The Alkazi Collection of Photography). Almost two decades of this multifaceted work has mandated continual reflection on the processes of selection, aggregation, re-classification, and preservation of images, and continually enables me to marvel at the re-emergence of obscured or subjugated historical traces and trajectories.

Regular immersion in a large historical visual archive has undoubtedly influenced the way I have structured this volume on South Asian lens-based practices and image spectra. Hence they traverse multiple chronologies (past, present, future, and the erasure of time schemes in the virtual domain); multiple mappings (inhabited/uninhabited spaces, landscapes, built forms, and the spectral edifices of photons and pixels); multiple rhetorics (political, cultural, aesthetic, methodological, existential, symbolic); and multiple subjectivities (social, singular, hybrid).

The navigation of these mingled modes has become reflexive within my thinking, and has proved immensely useful in the intimidating task of selecting the material of appropriate breadth, depth and complexity for this volume, which I have envisioned as the first of a two- or three-part series.

Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia by Rahaab Allana Book Cover
Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia by Rahaab Allana Book Cover

Photography was first deployed in the subcontinent in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the colonial knowledge project that included systematic ethnographic documentation and study of the “natives” and their diverse cultures. From then into the present, the medium has enjoyed significant agency and purpose within the subcontinent as a whole. Unframed scrutinizes the complex, intersectional dimensions of lens-based practices in “South Asia” – today a divided entity with major new borders violently gouged into the decolonized landmass, and with hardened political genealogies and mutually hostile nationalist agendas.

This volume presents photography as both an originary media that can assume hybrid form, and as a political, historical and social resource that has radically expanded our understanding of artistic and activist engagement in colonial and postcolonial “South Asia”. Different modes of vintage and modern photography, in fixed and itinerant formats, have long enabled a deep visual interpenetration, assimilation and diffraction of “South Asian” realities, and have continued to challenge existent image discourses.

And “South Asian” image-making has effortlessly transitioned into the contemporary “post- digital” cyber-moment that has drastically altered our concepts of territoriality itself, through all manner of subdued and strident methodologies of seemingly infinite replication that allow for the seemingly infinite deferral of any final “meaning”, and for the seemingly infinite expansion of viewership.

Rahaab Allana portrait
Rahaab Allana Portrait (‘Photo by Philippe Calia’)

However, one must also consider how digital media still has limited access in the subcontinent and does need to still be considered within the bounds of economic viability. Its deployment in news, information portals and other political expressions often mediated by corporate power.

Unframed then turns a critical eye upon how lens-based practices in the subcontinent are today merging lyrical and evidentiary frameworks so as to challenge the obduracy of our narrative positions, and to dismantle our conditioned habits of viewing that reinforce our intractable claims to know “who” and “where” we are, “what” is real in our seemingly substantial inner and outer worlds, and “why” we remain entwined with our roots, or seek alternate horizons, or juggle both imperatives.

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Texts by theorists, authors, researchers, curators and practitioners from different generations explore the subtle entanglements of memory and spatiality; the bricolage of selfhood; the blurring of taxonomies; the malleable dimensions of certitude; the edicts of the gaze; the rupture of identity; the interlaced fibrils of silence and speech; the psychic shock of erasure/re-inscription; the coded seductions of mirroring/‘Othering’; and the unstable politics of curating moments in time through occlusion, through manipulation, through saturation, through recursion, and through the metaphysics of visual perception itself.

The perspectives in this polyphonic volume continually speak to and through one another, and together confront our ever-elusive relationship to the multiplicity of “facts” and the singularity of “truth”.

The excerpt is taken from the Introduction of the book, “Unframed: Speculating Image Practices in South Asia” and with permission from HarperCollins India and Rahaab Allana.

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Storizen Magazine March 2023 Cover - Anuja Chandramouli
Storizen Magazine March 2023 Cover – Anuja Chandramouli

Read more book excerpts and book reviews in our March 2023 Issue featuring Anuja Chandramouli