Interview: Rahaab Allana

Exploring the subcontinent

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Rahaab Allana. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Rahaab Allana on how the cultural history of the subcontinent has been shaped by images, some of which were on display at the exhibition.

“DRAWN from Light” is a visual treasure house that delves deep into early South Asian colonial photography and its Orientalist projects. It is a throwback to the times when studio photography was just beginning to evolve and portraits as a form of representation was maturing. As photography moved down from the upper echelons of society, many flavours of South Asian life began to be documented. Frontline talked to Rahaab Allana, one of the curators of the exhibition, on the intricacies of early South Asian photography.

“Drawn from Light” is a combination of two very distinct themes though both were commissioned tasks. Could you elaborate on the epistemological tropes that went behind curating it?

Foundational to photography is the notion of exposure, or revealing to the public an aspect of the shifting terrain of how cultural history is shaped by images. Portraiture and landscape were the principal forms of documentation that allowed professionals to create an ethnographic study of the people of India, while highlighting courtly culture at the same time, an aspect we see in the images of the courtesans of Lucknow on view in the exhibition, or the Eunuch album. On the other hand, the landscape section was meant to show how photos of the territory were tied in not just with a pictorial sensibility but also with expansion. It created a view of India that was based on painterly traditions of an Oriental culture, but it also demonstrated how the colonial enterprise needed to showcase a particular image of India in order to convince itself of its domination. Significantly, we are looking at images of South Asia rather than India, as, during the colonial period, the borders were more porous. Therefore, a cultural exploration of the Indian subcontinent is important in order to understand the social and political extent of the material at stake.

Early photography in India, as shown in the exhibition, was a convergence of different art forms. Manipulating a picture was considered acceptable, which is quite interesting. It opened a new world for the contemporary audience. Could you tell us about your thoughts when you first discovered the photographs?

The discourse is about understanding the afterlife of an image. In our present, we are consumed in an era of mass observation, but the photograph as a particular kind of image is aide-memoire; it has always made us even more aware of a fraction of time and a sliver of light in marking memories, and reforging lost alliances. It is the culmination of commitments to seek a horizon line, that of a collective history, ever pushing the range and depth of a circulating, in-transit, shared and at times hidden image. Photo-montaging and manipulation struck me as important forms of experimenting with a form that was always considered to have an evidentiary quality …images are a replication of something in nature rather than a representation of it, and I think this is challenged the most when looking at those images.

One could gather an element of consent while being photographed among all classes of people. Studio photography, too, is, at one level, devoid of voyeurism, which is an aspect so intimately associated with candid photography. What do you think photography meant for Asian people during those times?

Photography has served its subjects differently, depending on the circumstance. For the royalty of India, who were patrons of the image, it could have been a way of extending the longevity of rule, seen in the tradition of painters that often drew profiles of the patrons in miniature form; there were others who were documented for the purposes of science, where physiognomy, the physical characteristics, came to represent a particular kind of character.

This can be seen in the People of India series that was commissioned by Lord and Lady Canning in the 1870s. So, there were those portraits of consent, allowing the subject many terms. But there were also ones of coercion, seen in the image of the Burmese dacoits who are tied up to bamboo sticks. Perhaps the last was a way of making explicit how identity, migration and citizenship are brought to bear within images.

What about the emergence of studios during those days? How popular/profitable were they?

One may take two examples here to show that it was lucrative: Samuel Bourne took up photography as an amateur, photographing buildings and landscapes in and around Nottingham. He made excursions to the Lake District, Wales and probably Scotland, producing accomplished topographical and architectural views. In 1862, he gave up his work in a bank and travelled to India, and arrived here in January 1863. Initially, disappointed by Calcutta [Kolkata], he quickly reached Shimla, where he set up his studio in partnership with Howard, as “Howard & Bourne”.

Later the same year, Charles Shepherd, of the firm Shepherd & Robertson (q.v.), arrived in Shimla and joined the partnership, creating Howard, Bourne & Shepherd. By 1865, the business had become Bourne & Shepherd. Two additional studios were subsequently established, in Calcutta (1867) and Bombay (1870). Bourne is particularly known for the three expeditions he undertook in the Himalayas.

Deen Dayal, on the other hand, was perhaps the most significant Indian court photographer of the time who ran a successful business which ranked in the top three studios of the day in terms of size and repute. He had the honour of being appointed photographer to innumerable royal patrons, including Queen Victoria, even though she never visited India and Dayal never left the subcontinent. His photographs won gold medals at various national and international exhibitions, and, when Deen Dayal died, his obituary ran in the major national newspapers of the day.

Dayal seems to have been interested in developing new clientele for studio portraiture and he turned his attention to developing a way of photographing “the zenana women of Hyderabad” that would not compromise their purdah. “Zenana ladies”, as they were called, were upper-class women who were shielded from the public, especially male, gaze through living in all-female rooms in the house and being veiled when out in public.

A newspaper noted that Dayal “has secured the services of a lady artist who will visit purdah ladies with complete photographic apparatus and after the sitting, will make over the plate, etc. to the person photographed, so as to prevent any possible picture being seen in the light of the outer world”. In this new arrangement “a competent lady-artist” would take the photographs, develop, and finish them in a special women-only studio, laid out with regard for ensuring the utmost privacy. This studio seems to have opened in the early 1890s. The announcement gives the photographer as “Mrs. Kenny-Levick” and states that she is “aided by native female assistants”.

Around the same time, the print media in British India was extensively covering socio-religious reform movements, especially those which took up women’s issues. The photographs of Namboothiri and Nair women, who belonged to an extremely repressive space within the family unit, is liberating emotionally. At the same time, it legitimises the colonial project. This tussle between the colonial and the postcolonial comes out through the medium of photography extremely well. While curating the exhibition, what were your primary considerations of selection? The exhibits are splendid examples of Indian aesthetics shot through a Western lens. What was the impact of the development of a photo culture on Indian society in those times?

All these photographers were working in the 1850s, except for Matzene, whose image is from the 1930s. This region was seen by a succession of photographers, both European and Asian. They were drawn primarily from a group of military men, medical officers and, later, professionals with commercial enterprises. These regions, however, are tied together by a common group of individuals who travelled extensively in Asia, pointing their powerful lens across borders, hence generating an immense narrative, one might say, of regional and spatial connections that would have allowed them to transgress the bounds of their own national identity, creating a unified visual thesaurus of Asia. South Asia, as we see it through some of the images, slowly transformed into British India, and was brought to life through aerial, engineering, landscape and people photography.

History often conducts our “approach” to a country and its traditions, and so, as these regions were tied photographically, they were done so at first through the perspective of war photographers, those who specialised in capturing military, territorial conquest in visual terms. The expansive views provided sweeping testimonies on those who resided in the landscape, and their homes often became frontiers of their existence in a battle for land and resources. War photography, it should be said however, was the principal type of historical documentation associated with the idea of expansion, but deeply connected with traditions of artistic, archaeological and anthropological photography that flourished during the imperial enterprise.

Rahaab Allana has been the editor of PIX for over three years (www.pixquartyerly.in), India’s first theme-based photography quarterly and exhibitionary platform. He has co-published a book from his private collection of cinema stills and ephemera, titled Filmi Jagat: Shared Universe of Early Hindi Cinema .

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