A Look At India's 100-Year-Old Dog Show Culture

A Look At India's 100-Year-Old Dog Show Culture

“Why does watching a dog be a dog fill one with happiness?”

-Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

You may not be aware of it, but the dog show business in India has a rich and long history. India’s first ever dog show was held in Lahore in 1896 under the patronage of the English elite as well as the Indian Aristocracy. It’s intriguing how little documentation we’ve seen it of it though, especially for a subculture with such a long-lasting legacy. Luckily for us, photographer Karan Vaid, whose parents have entered their dogs in shows since the late 1970s, deigned to take us on an incredible, tail-wagging journey through his two-part  photography series, ‘Best In Show’. The first part of his series is a quirky and riveting documentation of dog culture today, replete with an array of proud dog breeds and prouder owners, armed with grooming aids and medals. The second is a nostalgic archival of his childhood from the dog shows of the ‘70’s & ‘80’s.

Dog Shows in India (2013-2015)

“Simply put, a dog show is an event where different breeds of dogs compete with each other to ascertain the best dog in that show,” Karan explains. “Dogs are judged according to how well they conform to a pre-determined physical and psychological standard of their particular breed. Historically, each dog breed had a purpose and are divided into different groups:  the working group (German shepherds/ Husky), the Hounds (Beagles/ Salukis), The Utility Group (Akitas, Bulldogs), Gundogs (Labradors/ Irish Setters), The toy group (Pomeranians/ Cavalier King Charles spaniels), Terriers (Fox/ Bull) etc. Once the best of each breed is established, these then compete with the other best breeds in their group, and then subsequently, the best in the groups compete for Best in Show.”

Today, the Kennel Club of India holds dog shows across the country through various local member clubs. These shows usually take place during winter, and thousands travel - with their dogs - to compete and campaign across the nation at various pointed shows in order to accumulate points towards being ‘the best dog’ of the year.

When asked about the dog shows of his childhood, Karan shares, “I spent a better part of my childhood attending dog shows with my parents, who are both dog show judges today. It all seemed quite normal to me then, sitting in the back seat of the car, quite warm between two big dogs, as my parents drove through the night to various dog shows across the country. Of course, there was no money to be made then, and it was - and still is - an expensive hobby…I guess they were just really passionate about dogs.”

In  2013, Karan decided to visit a dog show again and found many things to be the same, except everything was decidedly ‘bigger and fancier’. The dog owners were larger then life, with dogs and even dog-handlers being flown into India and then around and back after the winter season.

“If you leave passion aside, given the rich aristocratic history of dog shows, the closest reason for its existence would be pride for the most affluent members, and of course, aspirations of belonging for the rest,” Karan muses. “There is this celebrity-like cult following among the fraternity for the best dogs and their respective kennels, and it was natural to assume the role, and style, of a paparazzo and to make photographs within that ‘genre’. That’s Part 1 of my project.”

Dog Shows in India (2013-2015)
Dog Shows in India (2013-2015)

As for Part II of the project, Karan confesses he has always had a weakness for vernacular photography, especially the family snapshot. “So, a few years ago, I started digitizing old family photographs and during all this scanning, I found an entire treasure trove worth of photographs taken at various dog shows since the 1970’s,” he explains. “It was quite nostalgic (especially since I hadn’t been to a dog show for over 20 years) and I started putting them together.  This is what has formed Part 2 of my project.”

As for the future of dog shows in India, according to the Kennel Club of India, membership has been on an all-time high, with new players every year. “There is a lot of money being pumped into the industry,” Karan says. “A few years ago, the government imposed an an embargo (of sorts) on the import of all dogs, in order to battle the puppy mills of South East Asia that cater to the rise in demands for different breeds in India (fuelled by television ads and the internet). This has, to an extent, affected the dog show fraternity, but reputable breeders and Kennels can still import a good-quality dog. There has been an increase in interest and know-how about dog breeds and their requirements - such as care, nutrition and exercise - and this has led to an over increase in the standards of dogs bred in India as well.”

It is hard to pick which part is more compelling, as they are both pretty much complementary, archiving dog shows in India decades apart and lending context to each other to construct the bigger picture. ‘Best in Show’ is an ongoing project, the first part of which Karan began working on in 2013, and he says he still has a few more years to go. “I am not very sure of, or worried about, an end or a form; I guess that will come when I stop being curious about it, or when I have nothing left to photograph.”
While he admits that finances are a problem as this series is entirely self-funded (as is the case with most ‘personal’ projects) and it has been getting increasingly difficult to justify the allocation of budgets, the curiosity within him surrounding these shows rages on and there’s still plenty left for him to photograph, which is great, because that means we can look forward to more of this wholly original and delightful series.

All Images Courtesy Of Karan Vaid

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