Accepted Paper:

Orientalism in a photograph  


Ajay Sinha (Mount Holyoke College)

Paper short abstract:

In 1938, the Indian dancer Ram Gopal travels to Warsaw, where a critic compares him to an American dancer. Ram Gopal's photographs by an American photographer shows Orientalism as a nested exchange of gaze and representation binding the dancer, the dance, the critic, and the photographer.

Paper long abstract:

In 1938, the Indian dancer Ram Gopal travels to Warsaw, where a critic, Tadeus Zielinski, writes glowingly about the dancer bringing to life the heroes of a Greek tragedy which an American ballet dancer, Isadora Duncan, had evoked decades earlier. My paper explores the trans-cultural force field that brings together the Indian dancer, the American dance, and the Polish critic, and calls it Orientalism. In a set of photographs of the Indian dancer by an American photographer, Carl Van Vechten, just a few months prior to the Warsaw concert, I examine Orientalism's force field in a nested exchange of gaze, representation, and self-presentation, guided by the following questions: What is the Indian dancer showing to the camera? What is the American photographer seeing on the other side of the lens? What is the role of the camera in their dissimilar investments in the visual image? The photo shoot in New York captures a rare moment of cultural encounter, border-crossing and self-fashioning in front of the camera that moves the history of global photography beyond what Alan Sekula calls "the limits of national identity". I refine Sekula by arguing for the fundamental role of Orientalism in shaping the national and regional imaginaries of actors in this photo shoot.

Panel P05
Imagining India in Central and Eastern Europe