A lion as a lovesick prince, a peacock as a master of seduction, a monkey as a conqueror of the world—characters such as these populate the luxurious settings of “India Song”, an enchanting series seamlessly bringing together nature and culture by UK-based German-born American photographer Karen Knorr.
Since her life-changing journey to the western Indian state of Rajasthan in 2008, Knorr’s work has explored Rajput and Mughal cultural heritage and its relationship to questions of femininity, animality and caste. The carefully crafted images of “India Song” feature palaces, havelis, forts, mausoleums and holy sites. They also consider concepts such as men’s space (mardana) and women’s space (zanana).
Live animals are inserted into the architectural scenes, fusing high resolution digital with analogue photography. Animals photographed in sanctuaries, zoos and cities inhabit richly decorated halls and corridors. Cranes, zebus, langurs, tigers and elephants mutate from royal pets to avatars of historic characters (as in “Sikander”—Alexander the Great), blurring boundaries between reality and illusion and reinventing the Panchatantra for the 21st century.
On her first Indian trip, Knorr and a friend travelled 2,000 miles across Rajasthan, and made a surprising discovery. “Except for the 19th-century photography that you could find, no one was really capturing these places outside of tourist brochures,” she says. “I was also looking to do work about India which wasn’t cliché poverty shots. I didn’t know about India’s opulent side until I arrived; as I found out more, I realised that it is a place of extremes.”
She had the idea of adding animals from Indian folklore into the exotic settings she found. “I used animals almost in an allegorical way to reflect various ideas about India,” she adds. She is drawn to the country’s syncretism.
Hailing from Frankfurt am Main, Knorr was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1960s. She finished her education in Paris and London. She has taught, exhibited and lectured internationally, including at Tate Britain, Tate Modern, The University of Westminster, Goldsmiths, Harvard and The Art Institute of Chicago. She studied at the University of Westminster in the mid-1970s, exhibiting photography that addressed debates in cultural studies and film theory concerning the ‘politics of representation’ practices which emerged during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.