Darjeeling, McLeod Ganj, Dalhousie, and Sikkim: names and places a Westerner would immediately associate with India, but would conjure quite different for Indians.
All these holiday spots lay claim to being the “Switzerland of India”, a mythical place that lies somewhere between the actual European country and an idealised space that exists only in the Indian imagination – a heaven on earth where wildflowers bloom 24/7, snow never turns into slush, and Bollywood routines are just around the next hilltop.
Nashville artist Christine Rogers came across this phenomenon while visiting Switzerland herself and puzzling over the large number of Indian tourists present. Eventually, she spent six months travelling the northern hill stations of India (you can read her blog here), photographing these partially-realised imitations of Switzerland for her photographic series, The Switzerland Of India – proof that no matter where you are, you’re always dreaming of somewhere different.
Dazed Digital: Why is there such an enduring fascination with Switzerland in India?
Christine Rogers: The enduring fascination cannot be quickly or easily summarized. In many ways one thing everyone can agree on is quite simple: the fascination of the physical elements Switzerland has - a place of natural beauty, mountains, snow, cold weather as the majority of India is quite hot and snow extremely rare. In the 60s the hill stations were a place for young Indians to go on romantic getaways, now they’re most commonly honeymoon destinations and increasingly family vacations. In politics Switzerland has been looked at as a place of neutrality, so within that lens many of these hill stations have histories of being contested territories, the idea of Switzerland might be invoked as a place of perceived neutrality. It’s layered though and constantly changing.
Ultimately my work there became a project much more about chasing the idea of a landscape and the spaces in between fantasy and reality. It’s about the search for an ideal and how that ideal is constantly shifting as well as the middle class domestic tourist industry, love, romance, snow and mountains.
DD: What did you want to achieve with this project and what fascinated you about the concept?
Christine Rogers: I was fascinated by this phenomenon as a vehicle to explore a space that exists on earth that might exist in one’s imagination or own personal projection of an ideal. Photography throughout history has been something that has roots in reality, but ultimately in my view it’s a fiction-making device, a way of telling stories. This concept of chasing the idea of a landscape seemed to be a way to give physical shape to this imagined ideal.
DD: This project seems like a reverse of the exotifying gaze most foreigners take to India – it's about how Indians exotify the West. Is that accurate?
Christine Rogers: It could be read as that but I’m not sure that was ultimately what I was most interested in making my work there. After going on this epic solo six month long honeymoon of sorts, chasing every place that uses the sobriquet “the Switzerland of India”, it evolved much more into being about the spaces between reality and fantasy and the idea of a landscape. The mountains themselves became more and more interesting to me as a sort of backdrop to all of these other stories: stories of honeymooners, hotel owners, taxi drivers, landslides, etc. It’s also about what draws someone to a place initially and what happens when you reach that place; how the idea of a landscape is constructed and then how the mountains themselves were constructed.
DD: Any crazy or out-there stories or encounters from your trip?
Christine Rogers: So many! India was like no place I’d ever been before and as such a lot of the crazy stories were initially getting acclimated to such a different place: stories like the time I got chased up a side of a mountain by thirty monkeys while holding my tripod, camera and two bags of laundry and subsequently had the worst asthma attack of my life. Or the time a random taxi driver was trying to make it back to a wedding so he drove the taxi so fast we almost flew off the side of the mountain, or the time I ended up staying at a palace photographing for a prince for his heritage hotel website… There was never a dull moment, not once, in nine months.
Follow Zing Tsjeng on Twitter here @misszing