Alisha Sett

Alisha Sett is a writer from Bombay. She is currently pursuing an MA History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. She received an Inlaks Shivdasani scholarship for 2017-2018 to pursue her postgraduate education and research on the history of documentary photography and photographic archives in South Asia. She co-founded the Kashmir Photo Collective in 2014; a digital photo archive preserving images across the Kashmir Valley. She was awarded an Edmond J. Safra Network Fellowship by Harvard University for 2013- 2014 for her work in Kashmir. She holds a BA in Political Science and English Literature from Tufts University where she was also a student of the Program in Narrative and Documentary Practice.

Modernity gets to be what it is because it has its others, and the same goes for art history. Enlightenment and the Enlightenment subject could only be formulated in comparison with the other: the colonized, the heathen, the unenlightened, the superstitious, the slave.

I spoke with Kajri Jain over Zoom during the early days of the pandemic in 2020. Our conversation began with a discussion of her early fieldwork in the bazaars in India, probing into Jain’s own education and formative experiences. It then detoured into a critical unpacking of art history’s “sacred cows’, the need to fundamentally rethink the discipline’s deep intertwining with colonialism, and the many forms of baggage that non-Western art historians must carry on their shoulders. Jain’s suspicion of medium specific approaches led to a productive dialogue about anthropologist Michael Taussig’s work, theory fetishism, and several facets of contemporary photography in South Asia. We agreed about the need to continue to critique an elitist discourse that misunderstands the importance of religion, and the embedded nature of caste, in any reading of aesthetics and mass culture in the subcontinent. Ending with the question of how to decolonize, provincialize and globalize when engaged in pedagogy, Jain left us with much to contemplate.

The pedagogical practices that can be undertaken through photographs can only be imagined on a mass scale when access to images to images is made easy, and when publishers and editors begin to give them weight. This is where the open archive, the bottom up archive, the archive for all becomes a beginning.

This is a short history of the Nepal Picture Library (NPL), Nepal’s first large-scale digital photo archive encompassing over 50,000 photographs collected in less than a decade. It is a rare institution; a catalogued visual resource open to the public with scores of intimate family collections, the historic and the mundane captured over decades by photojournalists, and portraits made in photo studios across the country. The essay provides insight into the strength, scope and potential of this community-created archive. Founded and managed by Photo Circle, a platform for photography in Kathmandu, NPL has published books, done several exhibitions in museums and public spaces across Nepal, and exhibited their collections internationally. Tracing the origins and the impact of NPL through a series of interviews, the essays reveals not only the transformative power of their methods of public engagement but also the deep concern for visual culture fostered in their volunteers particularly among photographers serving as amateur archivists.


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