Colonial gaze

Print edition : October 31, 2014

John Murray, The Taj Mahal with ruins in the foreground, Agra;waxed-paper negative, c. 1858-1862, 378 x 457 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

John Murray.

John Murray, "View of the Taj Mahal from the bank of River Yamuna, Agra"; albumen print, c. 1858-1862, 399 x 483 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Lala Deen Dayal, "Amber: General View of Palace, Jaipur"; albumen print, photographer’s ref. 1759, c. 1870-1890, 197 x 267 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Samuel Bourne, Tanjore, view showing the old moat and ramparts of Tanjore;albumen print, photographer’s ref. 2043, c. 1863-1869, 181 x 312 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Samuel Bourne, "Cascade on the Scinde River, Cashmere" [Kashmir];albumen print, photographer’s ref. 980, c. 1861, 237 x 293 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Samuel Bourne, "Kashmir: View on Dal Canal, Srinagar"; albumen print, photographer’s ref. 825, c. 1863-1869, 240 x 289 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Unknown photographer, "Causeway, Bombay"; gelatin silver prints on stereo-card, c. 1890, 163 x 109 mm (103 x 73 mm each). Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Unknown photographer, "Mahamakam Tank, Kumbhakonam, Tanjore"; albumen print, c. 1860-1890, 237 x 294 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Samuel Bourne, "Hindoo Sacrifice, Kali Ghât, Calcutta", albumen print, photographer’s ref. 1713 D, c. 1863-1869, 233 x 294 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Samuel Bourne, "Trichinopoly"; albumen print, photographer’s ref. 2055, c. 1863-1869, 178 x 312 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

W.W. Hooper, "Madras Famine Coolies"; albumen print, 1876-1878, 165 x 216 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

William Johnson (attribution), "Nagur Bráhmins", from The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (Vol. I); Albumen Print, c. 1863, 230 x 176 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Bourne & Shepherd, "Burra Bazar, Calcutta"; phototype postcard, c. 1890-1920, 136 x 88 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

William Johnson (attribution), "Khumbars of Kutch" from The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (Vol. I); albumen print, c. 1863, 178 x 228 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

William Johnson (attribution), "Banians of Surat, Gogo and Ahmedabad", from The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (Vol. I); albumen print, c. 1863, 229 x 176 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

William Johnson (attribution), "Parbhu Women of Bombay" from The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (Vol. II); albumen print, c. 1866, 229 x 178 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Madhu Gopal, "Vitthala Temple Complex", digital copy, c. 2005, 36 mm.

Alexander Greenlaw, "Vitthala Temple, Chariot-shrine and Mandapas"; modern positive (c. 1999-2000) from waxed paper negative, 1856, 429 x 481 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

“Drawn from Light”, an exhibition of photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries by British and Indian photographers, shows how the new medium functioned as an essential tool in colonial historiography.

WHEN Dr John Murray, a surgeon with the English East India Company, began photographing an unknown structure by the bank of the Yamuna river in the early 1850s, little did he know that he had stumbled upon a monument that would become a symbol of India to the world: the Taj Mahal. Mesmerised by the majesty and magnificence of the white mausoleum, Murray commenced on an artistic journey that would take him years to complete. Equipped with his heavy Gandolfi camera and other equipment, he settled in the area with his armed troupe. In search of the “picturesque” that Murray so definitely missed in industrial England, he spent months in pursuit of the best frame. He waited for the monsoon showers to fill the river up, which would then allow him to see the reflection of the mausoleum in the waters, lending a depth and animation to the empty river expanse. He paid special attention to the foreground, whose crumbled ruins and rank vegetation contrasted perfectly with the pristine forms of the monument itself. For him, it was complete only amidst its surroundings.

Murray’s photographs and the works of many other early photographers of the Indian subcontinent were displayed at a recent exhibition titled “Drawn from Light: Early Photography and the Indian Sub-continent” in New Delhi. Held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), the 220 original photographs exhibited, from 1850 to the early 20th century, were drawn exclusively from the personal collection of the renowned Indian theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi. These images, now a part of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi, were mostly commissioned works in which photographers have captured landscapes, changing cityscapes, and portraits. They also speak volumes about the subcontinent’s engagement with photography which began by the mid-19th century. In fact, it was taken up as early as 1840, a year after it was patented in Europe.

The pioneers of photography in the Indian subcontinent were, like John Murray, officers of the English East India Company. The functionaries of the company understood that photography could be an important medium to document the topographical information of their colony, which was earlier rendered only through drawings and paintings. Photography became a colonial project, more so in the early 20th century. Yet, the photographers saw in the medium an aesthetic value that went beyond the business of colonialism. So, like Murray, they switched their roles between being documenters and artists. The viewfinder of the camera exposed the photographers to a completely different world. The newfound medium gave them the power to hold still a moment in time and space devoid of the noise that surrounded them.

Landscapes and Monuments

The exhibition begins with the work of two photographers: John Murray, who was stationed in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and Alexander Greenlaw, who chronicled the ruins of the Vijayanagar empire. It then goes on to showcase Samuel Bourne’s landscapes and Lala Deen Dayal’s works, which were commissioned by the princely states.

Murray’s monuments, Alexander Greenlaw’s ruins and Samuel Bourne’s landscapes were highly influenced by the Picturesque School of Painting which foregrounds the grandeur of a scene. In attempting to document places likes Kashmir and Shimla, Bourne was looking to create tourist destinations for the British. In the process, he created frames that resembled British landscapes and were an ode to the majesty of the landscape, but which had very little to do with the people inhabiting these places. For instance, Bourne’s depiction of Kashmir makes it the ideal tourist destination—a photograph also becomes an advertisement.

Similarly, Alexander Greenlaw’s depiction of the ruins of Hampi was an attempt to write a magnificent visual history of the Vijayanagar empire. He deliberately lowers his camera, filling the frame with larger-than-life images of the ruins. His compositions are intentionally dramatic so as to enhance the stature of the site.

The West’s fascination with the cultures of the Orient also comes alive in the photographs. While many of the frames were influenced by the photographer’s nostalgia for landscapes in England that were being lost to industrialisation, they also carry in them the weight of colonialism. “Early documentary photography was a tool used to visualise space that was inhabited or controlled by the English East India Company, and is now often viewed as a two-dimensional embodiment of distant lands and faraway territories in an absorbable format—one that communicated both fascination and power. Accordingly, by physically turning the camera from a vertical to a horizontal position, the photographer broadened his or her field of vision from a portrait to a landscape view, capturing more and more of what lay in front of the lens. This also indicates that some of the earliest factors that conditioned how and what the West saw of the East were based on painterly manners drawn directly from the West and adopted by practitioners in India,” writes Rahaab Allana in an introduction to the exhibition.

Thus, as they set out to experiment with a relatively new medium, the British officers never left their “Western Lens” behind and this is significant from a postcolonial perspective. In the photographs exhibited, the camera continuously mediates, enhancing the appeal of the subject, but sometimes also distorting the subject to elicit an awestruck response from the viewer. “Native” photographers like Lala Deen Dayal and many others in the contemporary world too were influenced by this style of capturing landscapes. Deen Dayal’s photographs of Jaipur or Udaipur forts clearly illustrate this bent of mind.


The intensity of the Western gaze perhaps becomes most evident in the second section of the exhibition which documents the changing cityscapes of British India. Most of the photographers see the transition through a Western eye, a transition that happened only because of the colonial encounter. The history of photography is intrinsically linked to the history of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent and this reflects in the way cityscapes were captured by the early photographers. Colonialism, despite its mercantilist roots, entrenched itself through the values of 17th century enlightenment—values like reason, scientific inquiry and development were advanced by the colonisers as a facade to impose economic supremacy in a colony. Photography became an important tool to achieve this goal. The cityscape section reflects transitions in photographic practices which, in turn, were informed by changes at the level of governance.

The 1857 war made the British the undisputed leaders of the Indian subcontinent. And their cultural and economic investments in India became much bigger than before. “Together with the cultural fascination with space, the political landscape was conditioned immensely by the consideration of India as a land of resources, both physical and material—with vast quantities of cotton, silk, indigo and opium, it yielded great returns for those who decided to invest in it. By the 1860s, these resources were well integrated with the British production process in places such as Lancashire, known for its cotton manufacturing. By the end of the 19th century, Britain was the foremost industrialised country in the world. Yet, early forays into India were accompanied by an actual mapping of the colony, a surveying technique in which the landscape became an agent of ideas and ideologies that needed to be controlled in order to be an integral part of the colonial experience,” writes Allana.

“The coming of photography at a later stage relies heavily on this process of aestheticisation and fetishisation of the landscape as a European model of encounter. The accommodation of particular local facets leads to a kind of ‘Indian picturesque’ as the critical theorist Prof. Zahid Chaudhary indicates, in which the British find themselves implanted within a situation slightly different from the one in Britain. On the other hand, in Europe, as the Industrial Revolution altered the traditions of rural life, the old hierarchy of the picturesque began to crumble, yet in colonies such as India, it persisted for some time to come. Painters there became less concerned with idealised, classical landscapes and focussed more on painting ‘out-of-doors’ directly from nature, a practice known as plein air painting, notably at a time when photography was affecting their compositional choices. And hence, there were competing geographical metaphors at play on the one hand that demanded a sense of nostalgia and convention, and at others, one that created a need for breaking with the past in order to express the reality on the ground,” writes Allana.

This led to photographs which showcased hybrid spaces: a mix of Indian primitiveness, and British engagement with the native space ushering in modernity. For instance, the animal sacrifice at the Kalighat temple in Calcutta [Kolkata] was represented as a primitive practice. Pilgrims bathing in holy rivers or lakes were seen as culturally fascinating, yet primitive in nature. The traditional bazaars of India caught the fascination of the British photographers. At the same time, the modern pavements, newly built offices, or a sort of planned modernist development of cities, were represented as positive developments of the encounters with the West. The aesthetic sensibilities of the British in the early 20th century marked a definitive departure from the 19th century photography which concerned itself more with antiquated lands and pristine landscapes.

The colonial project to break with the past and aspire for an industrial world was rooted in Western sensibilities and achievements and was part of the larger goal of achieving colonial hegemony. The work of the early British photographers and the later Indians, commissioned to document the transformation, clearly reflects this. One of the most important initiatives of the British was to document the Indian people as they served as labourers. The primitiveness of the Indian people shown in the photographs provided enough justification for the British to hire them as labourers in creating a “modern” world, an act which was projected as redemption for the Indian people. This understanding is evident in the photos of famine victims or the coolies of Madras or the budding Indian entrepreneurs displayed in the exhibition.

Allana points out: “The selection of photographs of cityscapes chronicles the creation and representation of ‘modern’ urban centres with their various elements of the bazaar, imperial residences, parks, clubs, fountains, bridges, streets, roads, railway stations and ports. Although this ‘changing’ cityscape transformed the port cities into functional and aesthetic microcosms pleasing British sensibilities, they did not remain untouched by the existing pre-colonial fabric of towns, thereby creating hybrid spaces in some cases and in others drawing sharp lines of distinction.”

“Drawn from Light”, while bringing to life a captivating world that has long disappeared, also demonstrates why photography needs to be seen as an important tool in colonial historiography.

Early photography in the Indian subcontinent was clearly intended to project British rule as benevolent. In turn, in a postcolonial world, these photographs tell us about the cultural and material landscape of our colonial past and hence are critical links in a visual, interpretive history. It is this role of photographs as archive that makes this exhibition particularly significant. The photo archive brings the photographer and the viewer closer to each other, transforming the archive from an inanimate object to a “telling” aesthetic in the process.

The second part will focus on portraits and English ethnographical projects.

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