This work tells the story of my lifelong dream of exploring India, the land of my father's birth. He died without telling me much about the culture in which he grew up or his early life there. Growing up in the United States, isolated from Indian culture fostered the cultivation of imaginative fantasy about the land of my ancestry. My knowledge of India ripened from exoticized Western media accounts. None of this prepared me for the masala mix of complexity, misery and beauty of contemporary India that I finally had the opportunity to see for myself. Having now made several trips, and collected a wealth of photographic images, videotape, and journal writings, I am shaping this material into a body of work that connects and contrasts my youthful fantasies of India with my adult experience building a relationship with the land of my ancestry. With this work, I hope to symbolize the merging of my experience of the place with the expectations I carried for half a lifetime.
I merge images from different times and places to juxtapose ancient and modern, mythical and real, imagined and lived. I collage appropriated popular Indian “calendar art” imagery of Hindu deities into my montages of Indian street scenes, referencing contemporary clashes of values and cultures that are occurring on the subcontinent. By removing these printed gods from spiritual contemplation in sylvan glades and temples, and bringing them into the capitalist hurly burly that is contemporary India, I want to show how the Hindu pantheon, representing an imperturbable and entirely non-western view of reality, is palpable in the integration of spirituality into the country’s daily life. India also worships newer Deities with as much fervor as the old. Western materialism and the mass appeal of flavor-of-the-month Bollywood icons have added another vibrant layer to India’s visual culture. The iconography of consumerism and media celebrity often borrows from that of the ancient gods. These recent manifestations of India’s striving for an earthly paradise have also found a place in my art.
As a child of mixed British and Indian heritage, I witnessed and took part in post-colonial battles playing themselves out on a domestic scale. For me, the complex history of India and its imagery signifies the emergence of my own identity, a slow process of assimilating influences from both Western and Indian cultures. My use of Hindu images as a kind of subversive bridge between cultures speaks to multiple meanings and interpretations by individuals on either, or like myself, both sides of the east-west divide. Finding some way to reconcile these differing perspectives inspires this creative project.
Neil Chowdhury is an artist working in photography and digital media. His work explores the relationships between individuals, their societies, and environments in different cultures. Currently, he is working on a project exploring his Indian heritage, entitled “Waking from Dreams of India.” Mr. Chowdhury is an assistant professor and director of the photography program at Cazenovia College, Cazenovia, New York. He has also taught at Zayed University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates; the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan; and the University of Washington, Seattle. He received his M.F.A. in photography at the University of Washington. His photography and digital video works have been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. Chowdhury also worked for several years as an industrial photographer for Ford Motor Company, and does freelance travel, editorial, and commercial photography.