Observations: Images to replace clichéd views of the subcontinent

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The Independent Culture

In Western visionary terms, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh tended to generate default images. The Taj Mahal, most obviously, various maharishis, the pink-ish facades of Jaipur, flooding in Bangladesh and, the photograph of Gandhi taken seconds after he was shot in 1948. Our selective and re-imagined view of these places has been exoticised.

"The streets of old Delhi are truly fantastic, the chaos is frighteningly real," wrote the photographer William Gedney in 1969. "Your eye is led from one thing to another; before it can rest your sight must move on. Colour dashes in front of you; each street is a tunnel of movement, of frenzy. The vision is exhausting, the masses of Asia down on you, you see too much, your eyes want rest."

But is Gedney's experience of too much actually not enough? The 400-plus photographs exhibited in Where Three Dreams Cross, at London's Whitechapel Gallery, selects from the visual records of these three countries, in the first major survey of historic and contemporary photography from the subcontinent. The range of imagery is extraordinary, culled from family archives, 19th-century Indian studios, the Social Realism movement of the 1940s, and the breakthrough reportage of the 1970s.

Some of the photographs are utterly vivid. To pick only three: the exquisite joy and abstracted forms of four boys plunging into the water in TS Satyan's Boys Cooling Off On a Summer Day in Bombay; the surreal banality of the circus scene in Saibal Das's Last Night Show, Jaipur; and Mohammad Arif Ali's Rainy Day image of Lahore, in which a boy of no more than five or six is frozen in the act of crossing a traffic-jammed road through a milky galaxy of raindrops.

For many, the images in Where Three Dreams Cross will be the first time that life in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh is caught, and held, as a local perception. This time, the frenzy, the seeing too much, presents a newly challenging sense of life in these countries.

To 11 April (020 7522 7888; www.whitechapelgallery.org)

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