Appropriately on Valentine’s Day, the New York Times carries a piece today about the changing landscape of romance and especially kissing in Indian society. During my project about documenting Delhi’s green spaces, I photographed many couples seeking intimacy in public places unable to do so at home. Here are a couple of images from the series Public Spaces, Private Lives. A fuller set ran on the Camera Obscura blogin 2009 with a little interview about the work.
It’s with some relief that I read today in the Times of India that proposals to institute identity cards and entry fees to Bangalore parks have been scrapped.
The extraordinary idea, the brainchild of Horticulture Minister, Umesh Katti was to restrict entry to two of the ‘Garden City’s’ finest public spaces, Lalbagh and Cubbon Park to those that could afford, as he put it, the ‘paltry sum’ of Rs.200/-“. Further, identity cards would only be issued to those that had been ‘vetted’ over security concerns.
Lalbagh (Red Garden) is around two hundred and fifty years old. Cubbon Park, a British creation, is a century old. Both are a counterweight to the modernist, business friendly theme park that are the suburbs of modern Bangalore. Like most Indian parks they are populated by walkers, joggers, lovers, hawkers and the poor, sometimes untidily sleeping where they can. Oh, and Bangalore has a Laughter Club (a very Indian get-together where people laugh in groups to improve their health). Subversives all. Dangerous, anti-social elements that need checking and vetting and searching.
The case is interesting as it touches something that I have been photographing in Delhi for a while – Indian public space. Because cities are so crowded, public spaces become part of the personal, private sphere – a microcosm of Indian society. India has a profound love of gardens and greenery. I have written previously that all the major religions of this country have in some part a great reverence of nature – whether the gardens of the Mughals or the significance of the Bodhi tree for Buddhists or the garlanded offerings of Hindus. To privatise such public spaces for spurious ‘security concerns’ seems to me to be a very profound political statement. As Bhargavi Rao and Leo Saldanha of the local ‘Environment Support Group’ said. “It is an effort to showcase Bangalore as an elite, investment-friendly city where public spaces are out of bounds for local residents, especially the poor.”
“… the era of the Free Market has led to the most successful secessionist struggle ever waged in India – the secession of the middle and upper classes to a country of their own… where they merge with the rest of the world’s elite”.
The poor and those that don’t quite fit into a corporate strategy are an untidy blemish and need to be excluded.
In fact it is entirely analogous to what is happening in much of the Western (well, read the US and the UK) world. Britain is the most spied-on country in the world in terms of CCTV and legislation passed over the last twelve years has meant that fundamental freedoms that we took for granted – like being able to photograph in public where we pleased – are no longer guaranteed. Extensions to pre-charge detention means that suspects in the UK can expect to be detained for periods exceeding those of other comparable democracies. As Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian yesterday, since 1997, the UK government has created more than 3000 new offences. 1,472 at the last count were imprisonable. You can be jailed for not having a licence for a church concert, smoking in a public place, selling a grey squirrel, trans-shipping unlicensed fish, or disobeying a health and safety inspector. All underpinned by a profit motive for private companies who have interests in surveillance, security operatives and prisons. If we make citizens afraid of each other they will be more pliable: I know photographers in the UK that have admitted to self-censoring in public. Taking pictures of children, of property, of the police are now likely to lead to confrontation with authority. A company has already found a way to ‘monetise’ this by paying ordinary people to watch CCTV footage and report anything ‘suspicious’.
Section 44 of the Terrorism Act in the UK no longer requires authorities to have reasonable suspicion to search people for such subversive activities as photographing on the streets. We are all suspects that have to be monitored. All the time. For our own good. Usually by private security. For profit.
Soon there will be nothing public left of all our public spaces.
I’ve been associated with Delhi in one way and another almost fourteen years. I’m sometimes based there for months on end and, although it is perhaps one of the most frustrating and brutal cities I can think of, I find endless fascination with it. Like London, Delhi is a palimpsest of perhaps nine, perhaps more cities built, destroyed and rebuilt. It’s usually recorded, with some notable exceptions (and again) as unknowable and unloveable. Choked with people and displaying more violence than India would like to admit, journalists tend to concentrate on its chaos poverty and pollution. I’ve done those pieces myself, most recently a film for More4 News about Water in the city that you can see here. But Delhi is certainly more than that. During that film I was working in Kusumpur Pahari, a thirty year old slum or jhuggi cluster. The slum is entirely illegal but is home to thousands of people. Some have rather nice houses and of course some have tried to beautify them as best they can. Many have little flat roofs where they have gardens made of pot plants. It struck me that this didn’t really fit with the poverty stricken Dickensian idea that we in the West have of helpless slum-dwellers and I started to photograph them. That led me onto an as yet unfinished body of work about imaging Delhi in a different way. I wanted to look at Delhi’s relationship with Gardens and space and so for the last couple of years have been trying to photograph not only the acres and acres of green space in the city but crucially in such a crowded conservative place, people’s relationship to it. A couple of weeks ago I was approached by Fabiano Busdraghi who publishes online the small but beautifully formed Camera Obscura magazine/blog. He asked me if I’d write something and I immediately thought of this project. You can see the piece, The Gardens of Delhi – Public Spaces, Private Lives, here. I hope that you enjoy it.
The text on the Camera Obscura site is pretty explanatory about the project so I won’t bang on about it here. Instead, here are some more images that I like from it.