Consider this Indian parable: six blind men stand before an elephant. Having never encountered such an animal before, they each go to a separate part of its body and try to describe how the whole might look. One takes the tusk, another the trunk, the soft brush-like tail and the leathery legs. The blind men confer on how they think the beast looks, and start to argue. As John Godfrey Saxe's poem describes: "[They] Rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean, and prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!"
The moral? Truth is elusive - and in trying to grasp at the wholeness of an idea, a place or a culture, we often find that the truth of the matter crumbles and falls between our fingers.
Sampling India: Of Blind Men and Elephants is currently at Dubai's The Empty Quarter gallery, and continues an ambitious calendar of exhibitions by the photography-focused space.
The show offers six very different perspectives of the subcontinent. Each of the photographers explores an aspect of the elephant. With their cameras, they pick their way through where India has come from, where it is now and where, eventually, it may be headed. What emerges out of this full and well-paced exhibition is the sense that the country has a knack for loosening the mantle of a fixed identity.
"All of these artists are trying to construct a vision of their country or identity that holds together," says Hester Keijser, the Dutch curator who worked with The Empty Quarter on the show. "It's especially hard for those living in the Indian diaspora to grasp what the country is."
Keijser is referring specifically to two of the artists featured in Of Blind Men: Priya Kambli and Neil Chowdhury. In Kambli's works, the photographer assembles a ritual of remembering a country she left at age 18. By placing portraits and still-life shots alongside more abstract images, Kambli reflects on the role that texture and colour play in her memories. In one assemblage, we see legs hidden by a bright orange dress, the colour of garland flowers in India. Next to that, Kambli has inserted a black-and-white photograph of herself, with a fan of orange flowers placed on top of her body.
Another work incorporates old photographs of her mother, with lace patterns seemingly etched into the image. Alongside that we see the actual table - her mother's, we can deduce - carefully laid with the patterned cloth.
Kambli attempts with her work to show the fragile thread of understanding that links her to the country of her birth. In each work, she places before us images and objects - like ritual tools - that together trace a circle of understanding for her around where she has come from. Kambli knows that to try to pounce directly on any sense of identity is to miss the mark entirely. Instead, her work suggests, we must know the circumference wholly and glimpse the centre from there.
Chowdhury, on the other hand, offers a visual onslaught. It's a well-mined way of representing the subcontinent. In the artist's statement on his website, Chowdhury, who grew up in the US, describes the journey that spawned these works as "Waking From Dreams of India". His lifelong expectations of the country met with a bewildering reality, which the artist calls a "masala mix of complexity, misery and beauty".
He presents his impressions in digital collage - layer upon layer of photographed people, vehicles, deities and Bollywood divas are stacked like the ascending architecture of a Dravidian temple. While some of Chowdhury's pieces are scant on impact, he does manage to capture the strata of influences that make India what it is.
A centre of trade since time immemorial, and a tumultuous history of invaders and influences: the subcontinent is the world's great accumulator. It draws in outside influences while perpetuating everything that came before.
That multilayered, multifarious history may be what makes it so hard to reduce India to a glib statement of identity. Keijser notes that the country has had to absorb a relatively recent, great rupture: the arrival of capitalism. "There are many changes afoot", she says, "and you have a growing middle class who are oriented more globally. Naturally, you find clashes between them and a part of society who do not make this transition as fast."
Zubin Pastakia, based in India, has photographed the fading grandeur of Mumbai's single-screen cinemas. These elaborate buildings, slowly disappearing as the multiplex moves in, express the magic of cinema in their interior. In one image, we see a box office adorned with handpainted scenes of the cosmos, in which galaxies, rockets and spherical planets jostle for attention around a framed portrait of the guru Sai Baba.
In another, Auditorium, Marathi Mundir, Mumbai, Pastakia captures a daytime showing - a sea of slouched men, their feet on the seats, bathing in the reflected light from a melodrama. "Pastakia is an economics major", says Keijser, "so his interest in these spaces is not just visual." She suggests that the sprouting multiplexes, with their homogenised environments, represent the gathering stampede of capitalism.
Keijser also cites Mahesh Shantaram's work in this vein. As one of India's most celebrated wedding photographers, this has given him unrivalled access to the most bombastic (and expensive) nuptial ceremonies. Here, he presents the morning after, when the plastic castles and avalanche of fairy lights lose some of their sheen in daylight. "A lot of the works in this show are about constructed spaces," Keijser explains. "It relates to India in that it's a construction, a synthesis of ideas." These spaces, particularly the cinemas and elaborate weddings, are portals to a world of fantasy. "They are escape hatches - it's crazy consumerism, but there is something exuberant about it."
Elsewhere, Michael Bühler-Rose attempts to reverse the political implications of European still-life painting. Where once the old masters would incorporate exotic objects - often gleaned from India - into their paintings, here Bühler-Rose assembles his own still lifes using materials sourced from the "Little India" enclaves of Indian expatriates found in the West's major cities.
But it is Vidisha Saini's shots of the wandering "Behrupiyas" that really give Of Blind Men and Elephants its wholeness. These nomadic storytellers have strolled the length of India, passing on news and intrigue, for hundreds of years. They remodel their appearance every 42 days to represent a different figure in Hinduism, current affairs or gossip. Known to turn up at weddings and parties unannounced, if they're believable enough, they get paid. If their costumes and mimicry are below par, then they go hungry.
Each of the Behrupiyas that Saini photographed are real, and still wander India. Keijser sees these nomads as expressions of how identity is becoming ever more fluid. Similarly, she believes India can be seen as a model for the ways that multiple perspectives can exist together, and a showcase for how many societies will need to evolve amid globalisation.
"These men change who they are every 42 days!" says Keijser. She is quick to apply that concept more globally as well: "With the loss of fixed identity and nation states, the online life that we lead - the identity that we have is becoming fluid. You can be someone for 42 days, and after that you can switch."
Yet buried in many of the works in this show is a troubling backstory: as India emerges as an economic superpower, there are voices looking to fix down that identity. The rise of Hindu nationalism may be the next big question to face the country. To return to the parable from which the exhibition takes its title, it all really depends on which blind man shouts the loudest.
Of Blind Men and Elephants runs until July 31. For more information, visit www.theemptyquarter.com.