Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sampling a vibrant diaspora

New York-based photographer Preston Merchant on his pet project: visualising India's culture as seen through the diaspora.

Capturing Indian identity through the prism of Indian's new homelands. That is Preston Merchant's magnum opus. A New York-based freelance photographer, Merchant was enthralled by India at the outset of his career, and decided to look for its cultural progeny throughout the globe. He has been chronicling the Indian diaspora with his pictures for almost a decade now. His project, IndiaWorld, will culminate in a book, which he should complete in about a year. Excerpts from an interview:

What aroused your interest in the Indian diaspora?

I first went to India in 1996 and was drawn to the people and the culture. I went back several times in the following years. In 2002, I started photographing the Indian communities in New York and discovered that they are not all from India. There are large communities from Guyana and Trinidad, as well as families who have emigrated from East Africa, London, Singapore, Bangkok, and other places.

I managed to get some unrelated magazine assignments that took me several places with communities of Indian origin, and so the project took off. Initially, I did not have a personal connection to India, but I quickly developed one. One of my best friends Sam Daniel was a college professor in Kodaikanal at the time. I also am very close to the Ramaswamy family in New Jersey, who emigrated from Chennai. It has been fascinating to be with a family that moves easily between two worlds, maintaining and enjoying their traditional values while adapting them to different settings.

Also, I just got married. My wife was born in Delhi and came to the United States when she was 15. And I have dear friends all over India. So Indian culture for me is both global and personal.

Some favourite anecdotes behind the photos…

Lord Murugan Batu Caves: Some of the most significant Hindu structures outside South Asia are in Malaysia. The Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur, contain some remarkable temples from the 1860s inside a limestone cave complex at the top of a mountain. It's the site of the famous Thai Pusam festival. At the base of the caves stands a 43-metre gold statue of Lord Murugan, the largest in the world, built in 2006. I spent a day touring the caves in 2008 and wanted to photograph the statue at dusk when the spotlights were turned on. After several hours of waiting, the skies opened and a furious winter monsoon rain flooded the plaza. As evening fell and the rain tapered to a drizzle, I waded barefoot into the plaza with a length of cardboard over my head to keep the camera dry. I had waited about four hours for that moment and was initially upset about the rain. But the flooded plaza made a beautiful reflecting pool, gathering the light from the statue and brightening the whole scene. It was well worth the wait.

Dhow: In 2004, I spent three days with the crew of a small dhow docked in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. The nine-man crew were from Bet Dwarka in coastal Gujarat and were spending two weeks in the UAE, taking on sacks of millet and other grains for transport to Kuwait and Iraq.

The dhow functioned like a little floating Indian village. Only the captain spoke English, and I spoke no Gujarati and only a few words of Hindi. But we had a common interest in Bollywood, and I enjoyed the tea and rotis they served me. We were able communicate well enough, and I admired their courage as seafarers.

Despite the fact that the dhow had communications equipment and diesel generator, the crew's lifestyle had changed very little since traders began to ply the waters from the Arabian Peninsula to the west coast of the subcontinent thousands of years ago.

Barack Obama: In 2007, I photographed a private fundraiser for Barack Obama in New York in the very early stages of his presidential campaign. The group ‘South Asians for Obama' had worked hard to get his campaign to recognise the importance of the Indian American community. He was very well received and later appointed Indians and other South Asian Americans to his transition team after the election. Increasingly, Indian Americans are standing for elections at the local, state, and national levels. This is a relatively new phenomenon. I think it is very likely we will see an Indian American elected to the Senate or to the U.S. House of Representatives soon.

You must have come across peculiar examples of hybrid culture?

Each community in the diaspora has forged its own culture for reasons that have to do with isolation or necessity, or simple enjoyment.

The Indians in the Caribbean, for example, had very little cultural contact with India until fairly recently. Indian satellite channels and the Internet have made Indians in Guyana and Trinidad much more aware of their cultural history, which they embrace. Bollywood has always been popular, though it is no longer seen on cassettes smuggled from Bombay to Georgetown by a travelling businessman but on a 52-inch flat-screen television in people's living rooms.

Soca, the rhythmic dance music of Trinidad, has been given a subcontinental twist. “Chutney Soca” singers reinterpret the latest Bollywood hits, adding a calypso beat and a lilt to the Hindi vocals. Hindus in the Caribbean celebrate Phagwah, their version of Holi, which involves Johnson's Baby Powder and purple liquid. It has become a kind of national day for Indo-Caribbeans in New York, with a big parade in Queens. But the celebration is more about Guyana than India, since NRIs in New York have their own separate festivals.

Indians in South Africa, famously, created a dish called bunny chow, a loaf of white bread with a hole scooped out of the middle and filled with a potato or bean curry. There are different theories about its origin, but it seems to have been an adapted tiffin carrier. Every Indian diaspora community adapted local food and customs to their own, and the Indian communities in turn have influenced the local culture, especially in things like food and music. You can go to a South African restaurant in New York, for example, and enjoy a bunny chow without realising the dish was developed by Gujarati immigrants to Durban.

Culture in the diaspora is in a constant state of expansion, especially in the arts. There is a great Hindi-rock and Indo-jazz scene in New York, for example, along with the bhangra dancing that has been happening in clubs for a while.

Indian culture — modern, hip, and attractive — is an important part of global youth culture, and the forces driving it come from both the subcontinent and the diaspora.

When will you call your project finished?

So far I have photographed in 11 countries. I need to spend some more time in Britain and in California, and I want to photograph the large Sikh community in Vancouver. I do feel it is time to bring this project to a conclusion now. When IndiaWorld is finished, I might not have visited every community, but I will have sampled generously of the vibrant culture of the global Indian diaspora.

Tags : Books, Preston Merchant, visualising Indian culture, photographer, magnum opus