Bhupendra Karia, A Savvy Observer
A photographer, artist, theorist, and curator, Bhupendra Karia (1936–1994) was a man of many talents. Although the conference devoted to his work, organized in conjunction with the exhibition at SepiaEye, took place at the International Center of Photography (ICP) on March 16, photography was not always Karia’s primary mode of expression. He came to it later in life, by way of other forms of art, namely painting, graphics, aesthetics, and engraving. This is also how we can gain insight into his rich career: it is a diverse compilation of creations and commissioned work, animated by great curiosity, a thirst for culture, and a profound understanding of social problems, both in his native country, India, and beyond its borders.
One might be easily overwhelmed by this versatility while listening to the presentation by Dr. Paul Sternberger, Associate Professor of Art History at Rutgers University–Newark, who spent three years working in Bhupendra Karia’s archives. For an hour, the art historian delved into the artist’s world, bringing it to life with nearly 70 slides—drawings, paintings, photographs, news clips—and telling the story of Karia’s multifaceted commitment, his discipline, and his perfectionism.
Bhupendra Karia, Population Crisis B.8.74.70, Bombay, early 1970’s, Vintage Silver print
A cosmopolitan traveler, Bhupendra Karia left his native India in 1956 following his graduation from Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art in Bombay. Fascinated by the Chinese art of calligraphy and woodblock printing, he eventually continued his studies at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 1957. There, he became an assistant to the renowned artist Nobuya Abe, a member of the Japanese avant-garde since the 1930s and co-founder of the first Surrealist group in the country. At his side, Karia absorbed the refinement of Japanese art and learned to critically view his own and other cultures around the world.
Above all, it was in Japan that he was exposed to photography, practicing and perfecting it in the exploration of his own ancestral landscape and heritage through images. Like other artists of his time, Karia became keenly aware of the power of photography to convey meaning and of its expressive potential; notably, he saw beyond photography’s documentary function. In any case, his style quickly diverged from photojournalism, creating instead images structured around the principle of composition and experimenting with variations in texture, black and white, light and shadow—an approach somewhat reminiscent of Paul Strand. Karia’s way of looking was entirely self-taught, at once pragmatic and romantic, yielding some 12,000 images taken in the land of the rising sun.
In 1960, Bhupendra Karia traveled back to Bombay in order to exhibit selected images before embarking for New York where he obtained an MA in Interior Architecture and Design at the New York School of Interior Design. From there, events unfolded one after another: Karia returned to India in 1963 to work as the chief consultant for the National Cooperative Union of India, and the following year as professor at the Department of Graphic Arts at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. In 1967, he returned to the United States, this time to Los Angeles, where he took a year-long assignment as a guest lecturer at the Department of Architecture at the University of Southern California. At that time, while working in design and photography, Karia continued to exhibit work done in other media, which reflected his familiarity with a wide range of international cultural traditions and his interest in regional customs and artisanal techniques, which would nourish his work over the following decade. During that intense period of travel and nomadism, he wandered around the three continents of the northern hemisphere, often returning to India to exhibit his work and honing his photography wherever he happened to be, whether working on personal projects or on commission, most notably for the Taj Art Gallery, the art journal Marg, Sunday Magazine, and Sunday Hindustan Standard.
Bhupendra Karia, Population Crisis B.88.70, Bombay, early 1970’s, Vintage Silver print
In late 1967, he returned to India, along with his wife, Mary Anne Karia, née Mikulka, whom he had met at the University South California, to photograph his country of origin and begin what would become a major photography project that spanned a decade. A humanist at heart, Karia observed his country with the firm belief that photography is capable of raising awareness about social problems. There was little that escaped his lens: from the cities to the tiniest of villages, he surveyed everything with deep concern for the social, political, and environmental issues facing contemporary India. Thus, in the second half of the 1960s and the early 1970s, he undertook extensive photographic journeys, traveling weeks, sometimes even months at a time, covering some 80,000 miles. As Paul Sternberger informed the ICP audience, Karia’s early motivations for these trips seem to have been fueled by an anthropological impulse to explore and record rural India and its native creative traditions—textiles, pottery, and architectural decoration.
Bhupendra Karia, Population Crisis B.229, Bombay, early 1970’s, Vintage Silver print
“Karia’s relationship with India was complex and multifaceted,” said professor Paul Sternberger. “He cared deeply for its people, history and tradition. He saw photography as a means to explore and communicate not just what contemporary India was, but also why it was the way it was. To Karia, being Indian was central to both his desire and ability to offer insights into its cultural and social fabric. Yet as dedicated to India as he was, Karia also found himself profoundly frustrated, even repulsed by the country’s seeming inability or unwillingness to address deeply entrenched social, political, and cultural traditions that left so many impoverished, disenfranchised, and vulnerable. And Karia was not afraid to articulate his frustrations leveling stinging criticism at those in whom he saw facets of India’s failures.”
In post-independence India, photography was practiced only by technicians and amateurs, and was rejected by art schools reserved for the highest castes. As an artist photographer, Karia was unique among his generation. His twenty-year-long photographic peregrinations bore ample fruit, yielding hundreds of thousands of images. Applying his curatorial eye to his own work in the mid 1970s, Karia painstakingly winnowed his oeuvre of a quarter million images to a selection of 74 photographs held in a portfolio that he called “the meager harvest of my first 20 years in photography.”
Speaking about his exploration of India, Karia offered a sensuous account of his experience: “I was able to walk into the lives of people and live with them through many seasons, losing myself in the tapestry of the land. Then ever so slowly, it came into pictures. I saw simple women with sunlight dancing on their faces; bright big eyes full of trust and mischief like ripe fruits. I felt the infectious charm of a people who lived close to the earth all their lives.”
Bhupendra Karia, Population Crisis B.96.70, Bombay, early 1970’s, Vintage Silver print
Some of these photographs, 37 to be precise, were featured in the recent exhibition of the artist’s work at SepiaEye in New York. Population Crisis, B.101 Bombay (1968–1971) is a photograph representing an intersection gridlocked with cars, trucks, rickshaws, and pedestrians. Population Crisis B.96.70 (1970) is a shot taken in the middle of a street lined with boutiques and teeming with pedestrians, one of whom, a woman seen in the foreground, is staring straight into the camera. There are several photos of lonely, wracked figures clothed in rags, which bear witness to the plight of the untouchables in India. Reflecting Karia’s range of sensibilities, the exhibition also showcases stunning but more compositional images such as Population Crisis B.37.70, Bombay (1970)—a bird’s eye view of a stairway covered with a dense canopy of umbrellas; or Hand Print on Wall (1968), a thought-provoking photograph of a wall showing the imprints of human hands. Yet other photos, such as Birdcage and Saris on Porch, Sankheda (1967) or Old Man by Gnarled Tree, Bhakaria (1969) are an homage paid by Karia to the beauty of everyday life. Peasant’s Foot on Cart, Bhuj, Kutch (1968) is a complex image; all we see are the peasant’s feet, one bandaged, dangling in the air. In addition, there are images of hanging earthen pots, sections of wooden cartwheels, or a cow’s tail—simple objects or fragments captured with discretion and elegance.
Bhupendra Karia, Hand Print on Wall, 1968, Vintage Silver print
“Though he always made photographs with compositional structures, varieties of light and subtleties of texture that were informed by his background as an artist, at this point in his career, Karia took a photojournalistic stance where a series of photos might better communicate the realities of India before the camera, and he longed for colleagues who could address India photographically with a breadth, depth and seriousness of purpose,” explained Paul Sternberger.
Bhupendra Karia, Birdcage and Saris on Porch, Sankheda, 1967, Vintage Silver print
One of Karia’s unsung contributions to photography was his participation in the creation of the International Center of Photography in 1974, supporting its famous founder, Cornell Capa. It was a few years earlier that Karia discovered Capa’s work, in particular his efforts to expand the exploitation of documentary photography and photojournalism. In 1968, Karia read an article in Life magazine about an exhibition titled the Concerned Photographer, organized by Cornell Capa. This review was eye opening to Karia, who then wrote a letter to Capa:
“…It was a cherished dream to see a selection (small in number as it was) of other photographers–all the men I respect for their greatest merit: being good human beings. I intensely believe that good art is a product of a good man…Having been working on photographic documentation of India for some years I have, in a humble way, some insight into the struggle between the man who wants desperately to show the truth and the society that wants persistently to ignore it, suppress it, shut its eyes and lend a deaf ear…All I want to say is that knowing somewhere some people care about the concerned photographer makes these privations of working in adverse socio political conditions endurable. There is a strength of conviction that work must be continued and now your concern for the concerned has added the strength of compassion. Thank You.”
In the late 1960s, Karia and Capa became friends, corresponded, met face to face during Karia’s visits to New York, and began a professional collaboration. Karia then became a party to a major transformation in the International Fund for Concerned Photography. Over the course of the early 1970s, Capa, certainly with Karia’s input, developed proposals for ICP, detailing the institution’s programs of education, preservation, publication, and exhibition. In 1974, Capa was able to purchase the large but ramshackle Willard Straight mansion on Fifth Avenue at 94th Street for $600,000. That year, the Karia family finally moved to New York when Bhupendra was officially hired to work for the International Center for Photography as the first curator and an associate director. Karia would soon hold many positions at ICP including Curator, Director of Special Projects, and Associate Director. Ultimately, Karia would publish over 15 titles and curate more than 45 exhibitions. During his time at the ICP, he also helped the institution expand beyond photojournalism, curating exhibitions originating at ICP and bringing shows from other institutions that ventured more into the realm of the sorts of photography more generally associated with fine art: Stieglitz, Steichen, Clarence John Laughlin, etc. Indeed, Capa credited Karia with bringing in “a standard of esthetic elegance to the Center’s initial exhibitions.”
“Unfortunately, some tasks frustrated Karia,” said Paul Sternberger, “and he began to butt heads with Capa who was described as ‘gregarious and in love with the public—but not with detail.’ Karia would finally sever his relationship with ICP in 1978, but his role as a curator would transform the way he envisioned his own photographic work. As he prepared to depart from ICP, he wrote to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he had befriended during his time there, expressing disappointment that he could not bring the institution to see ‘the merits of critical selectivity.’”
Right: Bhupendra Karia, Turban and Gun, Bhavnagar, 1969, Vintage Silver print
Following his departure from the ICP, Bhupendra Karia worked on completing his photography projects, most notably Population Crisis, started in 1970, and India: Forbidden Images, started in 1975. He was also involved in constructing a database of 239,000 auctioned photographic objects, which resulted in a publication entitled Artronix Index: Photographs at Auction. In addition, in the 1980s and 1990s, Karia headed New York’s Center for International Contemporary Art (CICA). These experiences, for various reasons, proved “disappointments” for Karia, who was not an easy person to work with, given his rigor and perfectionism. In 1994, two years after he left CICA, Karia died of congestive heart failure at the age of 57, leaving behind a vast legacy and an archive of documents testifying to his singular photographic vision of India.
The relative obscurity of this artist may be puzzling. According to Paul Sternberger, it is partly due to the artist’s peculiar personality, although in no way does it detract from the quality of his photographs which were often the result of tacit contemplation of humble objects highlighted in sophisticated compositions varied in terms of lighting and texture. Bhupendra Karia should also be credited with having successfully bridged Indian and Western photography: nowadays, the Indian scene is more in touch with global issues than it was during Karia’s lifetime, even though, strangely enough, the artist is still little known in his own country. The general public has much more to learn about Bhupendra Karia—a knowledge gap that Paul Sternberger hopes to fill with either a biography or a retrospective of the artist’s work.
Jonas Cuénin is a writer, editor, and photographer based in New York. He is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Camera and a regular contributor to the photography magazines The Eye of Photography and Photograph.