The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
There is a variety of laughter: chuckles, sniggers, grins, smirks, giggles, smiles, hysterical roaring, screaming, chortling, sneering, guffawing, tittering, crying.
What makes something funny? Paradoxically, the thing that makes us laugh is most likely lonely, dark, ironic, abnormal, absurd, causing the human body to loop and curl in ways that shift its centre of gravity, and the human mind to twist and turn in ways that ostracize it from society and law.
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By Simran Bhalla
Someone once told me, “You’re funny! But not funny like ha ha.” Currently, it seems, nothing is funny like ha ha. Popular culture--from television sitcoms to advertising to everyone’s blog--has a wry, ironic detachment to it. We are cautious and self-aware, and our risks are safe ones: no one has slammed the proverbial (or actual) dead parrot against a shop desk, insisting it’s still alive, for a few decades now.

Kannagi Khanna’s “Hollywood” series of photos features women in the Ahmedabad slum of Gulbai Tekra. They pose in imitation of posters of Hollywood actresses, which rest behind them. There is something immediately humorous about juxtaposing two wildly disparate figures from completely unrelated contexts. But the photos also highlight how un-telling the poses of the actresses are.

Take what’s often considered one of the most glamorous, aspirational images of Hollywood: Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as the irrepressible Holly Golightly. Her lips are parted just so; her cigarette holder clutched quizzically, with eyes made up and widened to childlike proportions and her hair miraculously resting in a gravity-defying pouf on her head.  Audrey’s expression is simultaneously aloof and mildly seductive.

Her imitator’s expression, meanwhile, is the same as Audrey’s, an expression commonly seen in Facebook profile photos, where it’s clear the subject decided to make a funny face in self-mockery. It’s an expression of the aforementioned sentiment of wry, ironic detachment – we don’t want to be seen as trying to look good (even if we still want to look good). There is irony in the contrast, but there is also clear recognition of this irony in the photo subject’s face. The subject may look ridiculous (it is an unfair but natural response to think so) but the photograph achieves the clever feat of having the subject make the original look ridiculous as well.  

Irony is exchanged for absurdity and the presence of a visual non sequitur in another photograph. This photo pairs a resident of the slum with an old wartime pin-up of Ava Gardner. The imitator’s pose in this photograph is sincere, though visibly uncomfortable – she leans forward, instead of mimicking Gardner’s arched back. Naturally, her dusty brick setting is a far cry from the lush paradise of the glamour shot. But it’s Khanna’s addition of a goat – perched between the two ladies, staring directly into the camera, its legs the slimmest of them all – that stretches a smirk into a grin. Its presence has little sociocultural importance for us to dig in to: we can just laugh at it. This is why Internet videos of cats doing unexpected things are universally beloved. The goat may not be out-of-context for an Indian slum, but girls are girls, and goats are goats.

The series also recalls – whether intentionally or not – another few pieces of art, though of a rather more commercial nature. These pieces all belong to fashion photography (perhaps the most hilarious art of all). There are Donna Karan’s Spring ads, shot in Haiti, with light-skinned, bone-thin models at the fore in hideously expensive dresses, while black Haitian men – also bone-thin, probably not for the same reasons – lurk in the background. Karan said the images aimed to bring attention to the continuing plight of Haitians. They succeeded mostly in bringing attention to the continuing plight of the white man’s burden.

Then, closer to home, Vogue India’s spread in August of 2008, handed ten-thousand dollar, highly coveted “Birkin” bags to the Indian equivalent of literal bag ladies. Though the villagers in this spread appear to be laughing and genuinely enjoying themselves, the concept necessarily lacks the warmth and compassion of Khanna’s series. But if the Gulbai Tekra resident threw into relief the artifice and absurdity of a Hollywood pin-up, is Vogue highlighting the outrageousness of clothes so expensive that they’re listed as “price upon request”? Well, sometimes painfully insensitive, deliberately provocative things are funny. But not funny like ha ha.

The most hilarious photo possible from a combination of these elements would be if the goat were holding the Birkin.  I mean, look how skinny it is.

Simran Bhalla is the Nightlife Editor at Time Out Delhi.

Kannagi Khanna was born in 1989 and lives and works in Mumbai.

Also in this issue

  • Watching you watching me.
    To be alone is generally to have the finger of ridicule pointed at you. To be floating adrift like an island without anchor often means the eyes of conquistadors are upon you.
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  • The Uncle Phone.
    the thickness of the objects, he says, and the thinness of writing, the don't touch signs proclaiming the desire to touch in galleries, I said, and the drops of dal on writing, the don't touch signs proclaiming the desire to
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  • The Pea And The Princess.
    Her giant plastic head with large, tear-shaped eyes and no mouth (voice) reveals, beneath the humor, a grim outlook on a world where it is difficult to be oneself.
    Read More

Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.