ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Reading the Photographic Image

Conditions of Visibility: Writings on Photography in Contemporary India by R Srivatsan; Stree, Calcutta, 2000; pp 174, Rs 450.

In its most widely appreciated application, the ‘science’ of semiotics dazzled us with its readings of the texts of everyday life. Now that era is almost forgotten, even though its legacy lives on to an extent in the discourses that came in its wake. But what has perhaps gone unremarked is that the brief flowering of semiotic analyses in the public domain was what we might call its Republican inspiration. In a sense, the idea there, in the justly famous early writings of Barthes, for instance, was to question the presuppositions behind the state/nation divide, especially those that led to the belief that the nation was a spontaneously evolving, cohesive and readily identifiable cultural entity over which the state stands as an extraneous imposition. This branch of semiotic analysis exercised a Republican vigilance against the continuing subterranean currency of overtly discredited meanings, as well as the production of new meanings that sought to bypass the Republican pledge. The apparent spontaneity of the national life would be shown to conceal allegiances to other ideologies which had been delegitimised by the revolution.

There could be several reasons why this sort of critical reading of everyday life did not quite take off in India at the time. Of these, perhaps the most pertinent for the present occasion are those that stem from the Indian intelligentsia’s self-positioning in relation to the Republic. We could say that this relation has been, by and large, a weak one: a sense of being irreversibly grounded in the new time inaugurated by the proclamation of the Republic has not been much in evidence among the intelligentsia, preoccupied as they have been, with that other ‘native’ ground, and its recovery, a project for which the Republic might seem, not so much a hospitable training camp as yet another incursion of the alien. On the other hand, while another section of the intelligentsia has devoted its energies to the critical analysis of the inherited social structure of the Republic, the culture of urban spaces, where such legacies live on in mediated forms, has remained largely unexplored.

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