Wednesday, March 21, 2012

India - A Democratic Giant

Sunrise at the Dasaswameda Ghat: A Brahmin performs sacred ceremonies at the edge of
the River Ganges, the holiest pilgrimage site, Benares, India
Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2008  All Rights Reserved
Sometime early in the Twenty-First century, India,  a nation of more than a billion people, will overtake China as the most populous country on earth.   It is an ancient and vast nation rooted in sophisticated civilization, furrowed by cultural crosscurrents unique to the Subcontinent.  It is glorious and exotic, a land of mythology and epic, of philosophical introspection and spiritual flight; the home of Rama and Shiva, Gautama Buddha, St. Thomas the Apostle, and dynasties of muslim sultans and emperors whose architects transformed the landscape with palaces, gardens, and tombs.  But India is also a modern democracy in fact, the worlds largest.  In India's fate there will be lessons for all democratic nations, including those who have only recently turned their backs on Communism.  

India has slowly been distancing itself from the political culture left behind by colonialism.   After the British ended their colonial rule, the new nation chose democracy.  It has not been without its never ending challenges and as a nation they have had to confront authoritarianism and militarism to meet the challenges of poverty, caste, ghettoization, regional rebellion, religious strife, and political gangsterism.  The road ahead has never been more obscured by obstacles and doubts.  Despite new free-market economic policies, thrust on India in 1991 as much by world events as by a bold government under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and his visionary finance minister, Manhoman Singh, this ancient nation remains divided on how to tackle the challenges ahead.  

India, the jewel in the crown of imperial Britain has worked hard to strengthen itself and has made its strife by expanding its power abroad.  Yet along with the struggle, according to the indexes measuring the quality of life, parts of India are slipping into more and more poverty.  In the poorest states, literacy is low and malnutrition rising.  High on India's agenda over the next few decades, along with better schooling for children, must be the improvement in the status of women, a factor international development agencies are beginning to stress as a cure for chronic underdevelopment in many countries.  There are still many restrictions imposed on women.  Many do not have a chance at literacy or have been denied career choices or marriage partners.  Girls are restricted to social or religious traditions that inhibit their freedom and personal growth.  Both men and women are further restricted by the persistent system of caste.  

Yet India had the courage that few other countries could match when in 1947, the once colonized nation won independence from Britain and became a pioneer and model for the post-colonial age.  A poor nation divided by ethnic, linguistic, sectarian, and caste dared to choose the most difficult path of all: to lead its people into a multiparty parliamentary democracy.  No other nation emerging from imperialism had a leader like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma as he is dearly remembered, whose example of peaceful resistance and nonviolent protest would reach out to inspire the downtrodden worldwide, including those who struggled for civil rights in the American South.  Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, ranked among the great international personalities of his age.  Under his tutelage, huge and impressive dams were built across mighty rivers and steel mills were fired.  India would match its moral power with industrial muscle.  

Half a century later, the country with the noblest heritage has become the most divided democracy in the world. Gaps widen daily between the interests of opportunistic politicians of all parties, often allied to the few and very rich in urban centers, and the ever-growing multiplying population of the deprived whom are  crushed by the gigantic inequalities and handicaps.  Indian social scientist Rajni Kothari, whom has been studying and analyzing Indian politics and society for more than a quarter of a century, says that in the late 1980's corruption exploded frighteningly.  It is a harsh critique and he insists that corruption is a disease that has spread "to all but very few positions of power."  Among its causes is "a pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the future."  Rich or poor, Indians can sense the pressures of dwindling resources and feel the rising social tensions.  The power of the ballot  means little when party goons shoot their way into polling stations; institutions cannot function for the public good when there is no accountability.  

At only a generation or two removed from the freedom struggle, this complex nation is searching for a way to define itself.  Hinduism is the largest religion and forms more than 80% of the population.  It is followed by Islam at 13.4%, Christianity at 2.3%, Sikhism at 1.9%, Buddhism at o.8%, and in lesser degree Jainism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahá'i Faith.  Even though the diverse population follows mostly Hindu beliefs, India has the third-largest Muslim population and largest Muslim population for a non-Muslim majority country.  Hindu India proclaims itself the most tolerant society in the world.

Bharat Mata ki jai! Victory to Mother India!
Ancient India is singularly rich in written texts, from the hymns and verses of the Vedas, dating to the second millenium B.C.,  and the later Upanishads and ritual Brahmanas to the epic Mahabarata (containing the holy Bhagavad-Gita) or "Song of the Lord") and the Ramayana.  But when myth masquerades as chronology, as in the Puranas with their catalogue of avatars and dynasties descended from the sun and moon, the old texts open themselves to considerable interpretation.  And when other more mundane records have been lost or rewritten to conform the views of newer generations, popular legends fill the gaps, taking the place of history and getting in the way of scholarship.  

With the dynasties derailed, India started over.  Many of its problems may seem bigger than those of other democracies, because everything about India, is and some of its crises arrive inevitably out of the country's singular cultural environment.  Mythical India is facing a terrifying and exhilarating moment in their history, a time of daunting problems and tremendous possibilities, a time to throw off all burdens and seize new opportunities in a community of nations being remade geopolitically and economically.  For decades if not centuries, India has lured and seduced soul-hungry seekers from the outside world with its intense spirituality.  No one who traverses India is untouched by its devotional sense or the brilliance and color of its worship and the nations character.  In India Hinduism in its many forms is woven tightly into the history of the nation.  So powerful are the touchstone myths and legends, so pervasive the thought processes rooted in Hinduism, a culture as much a religion for more than 80% of Indians, that from anthropology to political science, in medicine, psychiatry, and the arts, the Hindu context cannot be ignored.  

India set for themselves the political task to make democracy work in a diverse society.  In the next century, numerically speaking, there will be far more democrats in the developing world than in the industrialized West and Japan.  Strategically, politically, culturally, and as a great story of sheer human endeavor, India cannot be ignored as its nearly one billion people, their immense human potential still untapped, move toward the twenty-first century, still seeking good leaders to whom they can again cry with conviction, Bharat Mata ki jai! Victory to Mother India!


India Facing the Twenty First Century 
Indiana University Press
Barbara Crossette

The Argumentative Indian
Allen Lane Publisher
Amartya Sen

State Against Democracy - In Search of Humane Governance
New York: New Horizons Press
Rajni Kothari

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Photographic Camera - Light Machines on the Threshold of Invention

Photograph by Leticia Alaniz © 2011  All Rights Reserved
Silver Gelatin Print - Model: Juliana Thompson Alaniz
Can you imagine, today, how the idea of photography could have evolved at the beginning of the nineteenth century - when we consider that only a few minds were even able to understand the basic principle, and even they had no idea of its potential?  In the small enclosed world of scientists and natural philosophers, the most common and popularly understood was that of the machine - the place where energy might be transformed and transmitted.  It was to this concept that the action of light would have to be adapted.  The frenchman Nicéphore Niépce was to be the first to conceive and realize such a "light machine" for producing images.  

Camera Obscura Box
The year was 1839, the French Academy of Sciences announces and makes public the Daguerréotype photography process developed by Louis Daguerre together with Nicéphore Niépce.  This was the first commercially successful photographic process. The image produced is a direct positive made in the camera on a silvered copper plate. The surface of a daguerréotype is like a mirror, with the image made directly on the silvered surface; it is very fragile and can be rubbed off with a finger, and the finished plate has to be angled so as to reflect some dark surface in order to view the image properly. Shortly after that very different techniques followed along with controversy over the exact role of Nicéphore Niépce , who had died in 1833.  

Photography was not invented by one person.  Nor was it the result of a single inspired moment of genius.  Economic, political, and social circumstances counted just as much as scientific criteria, lucky observations, and the intuition of a few clever men.  During a period of two critical years (1839-1840) photography took a decisive path, whose success and survival - which were not achieved straight off - determined its technical future and its fields of application.  At the end of 1840, the general principles of "photography", which would be based on the concept of the "negative", had barely been sketched out.

Three figures dominate the years 1839-1840, contributing with varying years of success, to the perfection of photographic techniques: Louis - Jacques- Mandé Daguerre, William Henry Fox Talbot, and in a seminal role, whom played a guiding hand was Nicéphore Niépce.  These three did not all "go into photography" at the same date and with the same stubborn determination for it is certain that these men, of unequal scientific capabilities, did not know exactly what they were seeking.  All they had in common was their goal - the chemical fixing of images produced by the rays of the sun, in particular those formed in the camera obscura (latin for "dark chamber"), an early mechanism for projecting images.  The modern camera evolved from the camera obscura.

It was luminous magic, the inevitable merging of optics (the camera obscura) and chemistry (the light sensitivity of certain substances).  These two aspects coexisted for a century or two without any idea of bringing them together.  There was a certain mystery of the age, the confusion of a period still pervaded with the notion of "natural magic", which paid little heed to physicochemical matters.  Originally the camera obscura was an actual large room, totally enclosed, with a hole in one wall which, by the effect of a diffraction of the light coming through it, produced an image of the scene outside on the opposite wall.  The observer of course, had to enter the room in order to contemplate the image produced.  

In the seventeenth century, the camera obscura became a portable instrument.  The apparatus became quite popular as a device used by magicians and charlatans to create "apparitions", as well as by painters of the time and scientists.  Then, in 1819 came along a well known British scientist by the name of Sir John Herschel with the discovery of sodium hyposulphite and its silver chloride dissolving properties.  His discovery took twenty years to become a method for "fixing" the residual salts, that is, producing actual photography.  It was his friend Fox Talbott whom pushed the process in the competion to lay claim to primacy in the discovery of photography.  

The first images produced were those of "views" directly from nature (often taken from a bedroom window), in black and white and with true tonal values (a "positive").  The daguerreotype was a popular method for recording "views" but there was one major drawback: it allowed only a single copy to be made and successive copies could not be reproduced.  The admiration was nonetheless expressed as a "miraculous" phenomena for their precision and tonal detail which many agreed far surpassed any painting.  

L.J.M Daguerre,
View of the Boulevard du Temple
daguerretype, Paris 1839, Stadtmusuem, Munich
Very few people had been allowed to look at a daguerreotype before the official announcement in 1839.  One such and now well preserved and famous image produced by Daguerre is the view of the Boulevard du Temple, taken from his apartment window.  The american painter and physician Samuel F.B. Morse whom invented  the electric telegraph was particularly enthusiastic about the detail of the "drawing".  "You cannot imagine how exquisite is the fine detail portrayed.  No painting or engraving could ever hope to touch it.  For example, when looking over a street one might notice a distant advertisement hoarding and be aware of the existence of lines and letters, without being able to read these tiny signs with the naked eye.   With the help of a hand lens, pointed at this detail, each letter became perfectly and clearly visible, and it was the same thing for the tiny cracks on the walls of buildings or the pavements of the streets."  

The length of exposure to light, which at the time was ten minutes or more, would not allow passers-by or the traffic on the boulevard to appear, their movement was too rapid to leave an impression on the sensitive surface.  "Moving objects leave no impression.  The boulevard, though constantly crossed by a flood of pedestrians and carriages, appear completely deserted, apart from a person who was having his boots polished.  His feet must, of course, have remained immobile for a certain time, one of them being placed on the boot-black's box, the other on the ground."  

Louis-Adolphe Humbert De Molard,
The Prisoner,
daguerreotype, circa 1848, Museé d'Orsay, Paris
The daguerreotype would suddenly offer an incredibly precise  and effective image of the world as it had never before been seen.  The next most important application was that of portraiture.  When the craft became technically feasible, the spread of daguerreotypes, an expensive and unique object, was subject to market forces and at first was reserved as in many things for the well-off middle classes and the wealthy.  Studios sprang up everywhere in the towns, encouraging a whole network of traveling photographers whom could master the fine art and technically complicated process.  The world in all its aspects - people's role in society, inaccessible places, phenomena invisible to the naked eye, seemed destined to be preserved in a museum of images, an inventory of curiosities, anything could be a subject of interest for the camera; but this would quickly be overtaken by innovations which made duplication on paper possible.  

Deguerre's invention of 1839 was indeed hailed by many in the kind of terms that might be used as "magical".  The daguerreotype became commercially viable on a large scale.  Photography in practice had the unique ability to record shapes without omitting any detail.  Imagine life without photography today?