Review by Gerhard Clausing •
I know from my experience with students acting out various drama roles on the stage, in a foreign language even, that the most effective performances take place when the role is totally internalized and performed not just from the mind but also from the heart. It is at that moment that the emotions and the external output become one and the same and the role is totally part of the acting individual, at least temporarily. So it is also with the Indians who perform in folk traditions, motivated by their ancient belief system, incorporating a deep respect for deities as well as for other living creatures.
Charles Fréger is known for documenting the costumes and performances of various cultural phenomena. I previously reviewed his work in the PhotoBook Journal, and the current book dealing with Indian devotions continues this very important documentary work, which is also an artful depiction of dramatic moments.
Some of the myths, legends, and other elements of the Hindu faith, adhered to by 80% of the population of India, are fairly well known. A foundation of a deep respect for animals is part of it, incorporating the belief that something divine is in all of us and in all living beings. It is a different and holistic system of feelings about the world than this customary in Western culture. Thus it is possible to have new deities that are devoted to certain causes, so, for instance, there was an AIDS figure as well as a Covid-19 deity in some rural locations to make tangible the new needs that our current century has presented so far.
So, as we would expect, the personal interpretations of various entities and ideas encompass a variety of customs and costumes. We see the blue skin of Shiva, the elephant features of Ganesh, the monkey features of Hanuman, and the multiple arms and heads incorporated into the costume representing Kali and others. What is particularly touching is that it has been the custom of everyday people to assume these identities temporarily, as shown, and it is a sad fact of life that media and other features of our contemporary fast-moving world are quickly replacing these old customs. As Anuradha Roy says in the essay “The Hidden Human,” this important visual compendium by Freger is “a catalog not only of masks but of feelings behind and within … largely a catalog of the oppressed and endangered.”
The dynamic spirit of what is visualized comes through in these still images and lets us see a kind of connectivity between people and the gods through these enactments as environmentally documented by Fréger. The wearers of these costumes temporarily assume the identity of those they depict and their energy flows into each individual for a short time, and is perceived by the audience, which also includes us as readers and viewers of the book.
This project is further enhanced by detailed captions for all the pictures, as well as an essay by Catherine Clément that gives some of the historical background, as well as a very important section by Kuhu Kopariha (and illustrated by Sumedha Sah) that describes locations, purposes, and further details about the depictions and their events.
This photobook is an important contribution to our understanding of cultural and religious practices, not just in India but around the world, as shown in all the formidable projects by Charles Fréger, a highly recommended series of folk documents.
The PhotoBook Journal previously featured Charles Fréger’s Cimarron. Freedom and Masquerade.
Gerhard Clausing, PBJ Associate Editor, is an author, photographer, and synthographer from Southern California.
Charles Fréger – Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions
Photographer: Charles Fréger (born in France and resides in Rouen, France)
Publisher: Thames and Hudson, London and New York City; © 2023
Essays and Texts: Anuradha Roy, Catherine Clément, Kuhu Kopariha; illustrations (drawings) by Sumedha Sah
Illustrated hardback, sewn; 324 pages, paginated, with 250 illustrations; 18.5 x 23.5 cm (7.25 x 9.25 inches); printed in China by C&C Offset Printing Co. Ltd.; ISBN 978-0-500-02498-0
Photobook Designers: Léo Favier and Daniele Roa
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are under copyright by the authors and publishers.
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