Splendour and decline

Published : Feb 09, 2007 00:00 IST

Chaulakhi Gateway, leading out of Jilau Khana, Qaisarbagh, albumen print, mid-1870s. The figures in the foreground have been carefully positioned by the photographer to give the viewer an idea of scale.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Chaulakhi Gateway, leading out of Jilau Khana, Qaisarbagh, albumen print, mid-1870s. The figures in the foreground have been carefully positioned by the photographer to give the viewer an idea of scale.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A recent photo exhibition of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts presents the architectural wealth of Lucknow.

STANDING with their backs to the viewer, three carefully placed "natives" stare fixedly at the imposing Jal Pari, or Mermaid Gate, of the Qaisarbagh in Lucknow as they are captured for posterity on Samuel Bourne's photographic plate. As visitors to a recent exhibition of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, titled `Lucknow: Splendour and Decline', will undoubtedly discover, the natives in Bourne's late 19th century photograph are extraordinarily indulgent by the standards of the time. Elsewhere in this fascinating exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century photographs of Lucknow, uncooperative passers-by transit through the dreamlike maze of palaces, domes and minarets, leaving phantasmagorical traces of their journey through the photographer's frame.

Curated as part of an entire season of exhibitions by the Alkazi Foundation, which included a collection on `The Lost Palaces of Delhi' in the month of December and an exhibition titled `On Hallowed Ground: Aftermath of the Uprising, 1857' (which opened in January), `Lucknow' uses photographs from the Alkazi archive to weave a haunting tale of the heady rise, and equally rapid fall, of the Lucknow Court. Rahaab Allana, of the Alkazi Foundation, explains that after its opening in Delhi `Lucknow' will be exhibited in Mumbai in early April and later in the year in Lucknow.

Thoughtfully arranged, Felice Beato's pioneering panoramas, John Edward Sache's carefully composed frames, Darogha Abbas Ali's intimate portraits of the courtly women of Oudh, and the efforts of several "unknown photographers" hang together to offer a complex and many layered narrative of courtly life. Yet, it is the occasional presence of the "well-placed native" in the photo-frame that offers the most interesting counter-narrative of the exhibition: a narrative dictated in equal measure by science and aesthetics.

The dislocating quality of a photograph, wherein a subject or landscape is captured within the limited confines of a photographic plate and removed from its original context, can often create ambiguities of proportion and scale in the mind of the uninitiated viewer. The presence of a known object of easily identifiable dimensions in the photograph serves as a scale by which to measure the surroundings. Thus, by placing the two figures just outside the towering main gates of the Qaisarbagh, Bourne gives us an idea of the sheer size of the gates, while the third figure - standing before the lesser gates - provides us with a perception of depth and distance. However, the collodion-silver nitrate glass plate negatives used by early photographers required very long exposure periods, forcing their subjects to pose for several minutes at a stretch. This explains the rigid, almost militaristic postures adopted by most subjects, including those in Bourne's photograph. The long exposure settings also explain the trailing after-images of vanished subjects such as those in a photograph of the Chaulakhi Gateway (Frith Series, now part of the Alkazi Archive).

The metaphor of the transitory subject - vanished but for the trace of a white headdress supported by faint outlines - also provides the viewer with a prism to think of the contested terrain that comprises our collective history. The photograph of the Chaulakhi Gateway, for instance, shows several "intentionally placed" subjects arranged in pre-determined postures and positions outside the gateway. These uncomfortably upright figures, obviously conscious of the presence of the photographer, provide us with an aesthetically staged representation of our past. However, through the gateway, a careful viewer will notice the hurried blur caused by a group of men who must have accidentally strayed onto the set while history was being created.

The vast empty spaces that surround the towering Asafi Mosque, or Bara Imambara, and the Hussainabad Imambara and the sometimes predictable angles adopted by the photographers guide a visitor along several different trajectories, the primary one being the absence of crowds. While the few prints of paintings of the same period, such as Colonel Mordaunt's Cock Match by Johann Zoffany, reveal intricate, densely packed, storyboards complete with opulent nobility, scheming Europeans and multitudes spilling out of the canvas, the photographs are flat, haunting and desolate images of ruins even before they were ruined. While the complete absence of chaos can be adequately explained by the limits of photographic technology of the time - capturing movement was practically impossible - the eerie resemblance of these photographs to modern representations of our monuments suggests the beginnings of a certain, uniquely "administrative" idea of order, cleanliness and purity of symbols of the state, shorn of the disruption, discord and disorder of the unwashed masses. The vibrant movement in the painting and the stillness of the photographs are an interesting inversion of the modern-day phenomenon where photography is famously appreciated for its immediacy and ability to capture the decisive moment.

The repetitive angles through which colonial photographers, especially Bourne and Sache, approached the city of Lucknow is another trajectory that the exhibition invites us to explore. The similarity of Bourne's and Sache's work can be explained, at least in part, by indications that Sache's earliest work in India was to revisit the sites in Bourne's photographs and take near-identical photographs with the aim of passing them off as original Bournes. However, the well-researched text provided alongside most photographs in the exhibition hint at a possibility that is realised most forcefully in Felice Beato's aerial view of the Hussainabad Imambara.

Most photographs in the exhibition reveal a city with a tremendous physical and visual presence that imposes itself onto the photographer to the point of dictating where he should stand, how he should frame his shots, and what he should come away with. In the print of Beato's photograph produced by the Alkazi Foundation, the surroundings of the Hussainabad Imambara are deliberately darkened, revealing the aesthetic principles that underlie the sprawling complex. The incredible symmetry of the structure arises out of the persistent deployment of the idea of "visual echo", where each structure and gateway has a corresponding "answering" building.

Rahaab Allana, from the Alkazi Foundation, explains that the concept of the visual echo is derived, in part, from the rich tradition of sawal (question) and jawab (answer) in qawaali. Thus, to get a photograph that effectively captures this intricate interplay, a photographer is left with limited choices of how to position his lens.

`Lucknow: Splendour and Decline' works as an exhibition precisely because of the multiple possibilities that it urges its viewers to consider.

To classify it as simply an exhibition on the architecture of Lucknow is to paper over the cracks in the timeless facades, to banish the ghosts from their minarets, and to smoothen out the ripples in the tank where the reflection of the Imambara tremulously shimmers.

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