As Gods Among Us: A Photographic Exploration of India's Ritual Performers

A photographer explores the gamut of India’s ritual performers who embody deities as a form of worship

by Kai Friese Published May 20, 2024 16:59:42 IST
As Gods Among Us: A Photographic Exploration of India's Ritual Performers Sudukathu Kali (Graveyard Kali), Kulasai Dussehra, Udangudi, Tamil Nadu; All Photographs by Charles Fr├ęger

A demon asur nonchalantly twirling a human skull and the blade that took it; the buffalo-headed monster Mahisasur, and his nemesis, the half-man, half-lion Narsimha; a pair of gopis, or milkmaids, waving peacock feathers to catch a polyamorous god’s eye; the naked and bloodthirsty goddess Kali, with her many arms and garland of skulls—the dramatis personae of the Hindu cosmos is famously colourful and many-headed. But the selection of wild incarnations stalking the pages of Charles Fréger’s book of portraits Aam Aastha offers a glimpse of a more startling, and perhaps deeper, paganism than the narrowing visual imagination of mainstream Hindu iconography proliferating in India today.

While modern Hindu nationalism fosters a state-sponsored religious aesthetic increasingly focussed on gigantic temples and statues, Charles Fréger’s meticulously composed images of the ‘little traditions’ of religious devotion staged by costumed ‘folk’ artists from more than 60 local cultures across the country, are both strikingly beautiful and quietly unsettling.

Fréger has, it would be fair to say, something of an obsession with ritual costumed performance, or masquerades. He has been working on related themes since at least 2010, in a beguiling series of books including Wilder Mann, on mythic, feral characters of European cultures, Yokainoshima on traditional festival costumes of rural Japan, and Cimarron, on the ritual costumes and characters assumed by descendants of African slaves in the Americas.

image-54_052024043308.jpgUchitta, Theyyam, Madayi village, Kannur, Kerala

Despite the resonance of these earlier projects, Fréger told me that Aam Aastha (which translates as ‘common devotions’) was “more ambitious” because it focussed on masquerades and dances linked to religion. “This is what distinguishes it from my other projects right from the start,” he said. “Here, we depict a wide variety of representations, often tribal, of Buddhist and Hindu deities.”

Indeed, many of the traditions documented in Aam Astha involve performers from the bottom of the elaborate social hierarchy that has historically ostracized tribal and low-caste communities. Paradoxically, it is this social dynamic that charges the performances you see on these pages with much of their power. The Theyyam representation of the goddess Uchitta for example, is a performance that combines, divine mediation, individual transformation and the subversion of hierarchy (however temporary) since it is traditionally enacted only by a Dalit man.

image-55_052024043337.jpgCharkula Nritya, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

Similarly, the Gajan performers of Bengal have a tradition of straying onto the ritually ‘impure’ stage of cremation and burial grounds. It’s rumoured that despite legal prohibitions, they still seek out the ultimate theatrical prop, the Ur-mask: a human skull. Fréger himself was struck by “the economy of means” used to create the costumes and masks he photographed. “In India, more than anywhere else, faces and bodies are often painted ... This is frequently the basis of the mask. The rest may be made of recycled fabric.”

Yet, for all the aesthetic diversity and frank exoticism in these 300-odd images, we are also confronted with the shock of something familiar: echoes of the visual projects of both colonialism and modernity. It’s hard, at first glance, to ignore the impression that the book is a collection, a compendium, of costumes and performance traditions. I thought immediately of the famous 19th-century volumes Les Hindous, ou description de leurs moeurs coutumes et cérémonies (The Hindus, or Description of their Morals, Customs and Ceremonies) by the Flemish printmaker-ethnographer Frans Balthazar Solvyns. Indeed, I thought of the entire European tradition of cataloguing colonial subjects as info-tainment, whether in encyclopaedic volumes like Solvyns’, or the ‘human zoos’ of Carl Hagenbeck or the dioramas of ‘tribal savages’ in Victorian-era museums, some of which survive in India to this day.

image-56_052024043510.jpgAsur Sonio and Mathar Khuli (Demon Army and Skull), Gajan Kasim Bazar, Murshidabad, West Bengal

While it’s impossible to un-see the accumulation of colonial imagery that Aam Aastha evokes, Fréger negotiates this fraught legacy with a coolly provocative detachment. You can see that there is more than one thing going on in his tableaux. They are staged, for a start, like outdoor studio portraits, with flat lighting and backdrops that alternate between generic landscapes and the cheap brickwork and bright paint of small-town India. As a result, we find the performers caught in relaxed or extravagant poses, their lines and shapes distinctly foregrounded and decontextualized from the busy realities of actual ritual performance or street theatre. “To be in India is to be part of a very noisy, chaotic world, but my portraits press pause on the frenzy,” Fréger says.

The photographer’s remarks reminded me how very different his perspective is from that of an Indian, or urban-cosmopolitan Indian viewer. For someone like me, it’s impossible not to confront the simultaneous masquerades of nativism and the white masks of colonialism’s cultural legacy. And to me, the figure of a subaltern, folkloric performer always evokes a sense of regret or rebuke that demands an outspoken response.

image-57_052024043543.jpgGopis, Ras Leela, Tellou village, Imphal East, Manipur

These are not images I can imagine an Indian photographer attempting, though I can think of at least three prominent contemporary ones who are similarly obsessed with costume and ritual: Gauri Gill, whose Acts of Appearance deploys the masks of tribal artists to stage unsettlingly quotidian tableaus; Arko Datto, whose thematic documentary work ‘PPE Fuses the Masks of the Covid pandemic’ with effigies of Bengal’s religious festivals; and Pushpamala N. whose Native Women of South India—Manners and Customs is an explicitly playful and ironic take on the exoticization of costumes, performance and portraiture itself.

Fréger’s images, though, maintain a reticent distance, a strategy that could be construed as naïve, evasive—or subtle. They are certainly free of any didacticism, and one benefit of this is that they invite the observer to layer the pictures with their own references. I find myself startled by the chilling serenity of the Manipuri Ras Leela image for example, given the recent outbreak of a brutal ethnic civil war in that part of India, while the Assamese Nirsingha looks to me like a doppelgänger of the American adult cartoon character BoJack Horseman. In the portrait of the doomed buffalo-demon I can’t help but smile at the gentle humour of the backdrop, a wall plastered with patties of bovine dung.

image-58_052024045511.jpgNirsingha (Narasimha), Bhaona, Tetelia village, Sonapur, Assam

If Fréger avoids polemics and irony, there is clear empathy here, and he is emphatic about his desire to celebrate “ordinary people” trying to express “their desire to do good, to embody the deities as best they can.”

I think he’s also more optimistic than an Indian aesthete is likely to be. The novelist Anuradha Roy, in an introductory essay to the book, expresses the fear that these images document “an ancient system of beliefs and rituals being swept away by a homogenizing combination of forces: religious nationalism, globalization, the mass media.”

image-59_052024045544.jpgMahishasur, Gajan, Kasim Bazar, Murshidabad, West Bengal

But Fréger himself prefers to believe that “there’s a strength in these regional rituals that resists this dominant, centralized culture.” He also celebrates the adaptive ingenuity of his ‘devotees’, their use of found materials and the “circulation of forms and imaginary worlds, thanks to everything locals can see on their cell phones.” For all the aesthetic distance in his photographs, this ‘imaginative circulation’ is a bond that Fréger seeks to share with the fellow bricoleurs on the other side of his own elaborate mask—the camera.


French portrait photographer Charles Fréger is best known for his exploration of communities through the study of body and clothing. His book Aam Aastha: Indian Devotions (Thames and Hudson, Rs3,300; 324 pages) was released in 2023.
A version of this article was first published in German in the magazine GEO, January 2024.
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