Identity narratives

Portrait photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries from the Alkazi collection make for a rich visual interpretive history and contribute to a nuanced understanding of many contemporary quandaries.

Published : Oct 29, 2014 14:01 IST

Higginbotham & Co., Madras and Bangalore, "A Proud Father", tinted phototype postcard, c. 1900, 137 x 88 mm.

Higginbotham & Co., Madras and Bangalore, "A Proud Father", tinted phototype postcard, c. 1900, 137 x 88 mm.

WITH the matriarch in the centre of the frame and her grandchildren lying at her feet, the black-and-white albumen print of a joint Parsi family, taken as a frontal shot by Cambridge and Company, one of the earliest Indian commercial photo studios, resolves many contemporary dilemmas. Taken in the 1890s, the photograph is a vivid depiction of a community which was culturally rooted in its communitarian, often considered foreign, ethos and yet was firmly grounded in a land which became its own and where it built its fortunes. The people in the image exude a charming confidence and calmness, as if they belonged here. Like the Parsis, many other communities migrated to the subcontinent and merged into the cultural landscape to make it their own, thus transforming the space they inhabited into a diverse, vibrant cultural milieu.

Whose country is India? To whom does it belong? The Parsi joint family photograph and other similar photographs from the renowned theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi’s personal collection, which were displayed in a recent exhibition “Drawn From Light: Early Photography and the Indian Subcontinent” held in New Delhi, answer many such contemporary quandaries. Each and every image, while making for a rich visual, interpretive history, distributes ownership of this land to all the communities and foregrounds a cosmopolitan culture that held its own even as communitarian identities evolved over the last two centuries.

Looking at the photograph of this traditionally dressed joint Parsi family, Ebrahim Alkazi reminisces about his own identity: “The Parsis of Gujarat and Bombay, many of whom I knew and worked with, are a community recognised for their refined sense of taste, their dignified attire, their depth of knowledge and their patronage of industry and art. It was said that they literally absorbed India when they first arrived from Persia (Iran). Using a common metaphor—if the people of India were a bowl of milk, the Parsis represented a fistful of sugar that dissolved in it, enriching it. Their dedication thence to institutional development and merging in Maharashtrian society more specifically informed my own sense of a cultural heritage and assimilation when I first came to Bombay from Pune in the 1940s. Over the last several years, while travelling from city to city, I have been brought to think about my own sense of home and family—one that has changed with every passing year. As Arabs in India, our family managed a lucrative business, but at every stage we adopted India as our home as much as it accepted us as a people.”

At a time when identities are being systematically bracketed and communalised, the portraits displayed in the exhibition are a compelling reminder to re-evaluate prevailing prejudices. In that context, early photography becomes a valuable archive that documents cultures in transition.

Many of these portrait photographs, taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were commissioned works. The fillip to document the colonised public through photography was given by the British, who wished to emphasise Indian primitiveness in order to justify their “benevolent” rule. As photography became an important medium because of these efforts by the British, a significant number of commercial studios, mostly owned by Britishers, emerged in cities during this period.

Undoubtedly, photography among the general public also took off as a way of documenting family history, and portrait photography was central to that endeavour. The German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.”

Portraits provided a metaphorical mirror image which was until then only a muse to poets, authors, painters and philosophers. Here was one form which made the general public introspect, remember, and live their reality outside it. The studio and its artificial setting tweaked just enough reality to make photography a uniquely enjoyable experience.

The result of such a mood has been aptly described by exhibition curators Beth Citron and Rahaab Allana: “The people who emerge from these images are not foreigners in the land, or those who have made it their colony—but the inhabitants. These are not images of people who have been merely consumed by conflict and colonialism, but who have paved a path of resistance by displaying their entitlement to their homes with dignity and austerity.”

The novelty of the medium also compelled the British photographers on commission to treat photography as an art form. Despite the fact that they were commissioned to document races and bodies of the “Orient”, the portraits displayed in the exhibition were not merely static, but, in fact, they mediated with the local cultures and environments. The most significant example of such portrait photography is that of William Johnson, who was commissioned on the colonial anthropological project “Oriental Races and Tribes”. Thus, Johnson’s “Owdich Brahmins”, set against a temple, not only becomes a portrait but also signifies a cultural catalogue of their lives against the backdrop of a temple economy. Similarly, Samuel Bourne’s “Toda Village” depicts the villagers in their traditional households and reflects their impoverishment. Plate and Co.’s portrait “Vedahs in Colombo”, too, reflects a Western image of tribesmen.

The set of ethnographic portraits by the Indian father-and-son duo Gobindram and Oodeyram represents a 19th century colonial painting tradition called the Company School in which company patrons asked native artists to paint their possessions, servants, and general lifestyles. British photography had clearly identified the marginalised in the Indian subcontinent. While their photographs portrayed powerful castes like the Brahmins and the Rajputs in their traditional attires and lifestyles, the lower castes were shown as workers engaged in their daily chores. Photographs like a woman selling prawns, or a barber giving a shave to his customer, pictures of courtesans, hijras, nautch girls or, at a larger scale, pictures of tea plantations and labourers mirrored this aspect of British photographers.

Two photographs stand out in this section. The first one portrays the punishment meted out to dacoits, fitting the photographer’s Western idea of the Indian subcontinent as a land of primitive justice systems, a philosophical notion that justified the colonial, modernist regime. The second one is a photograph that shows a bearded family, fulfilling the coloniser’s exotic imagination of the Orient.

Exotic ideas about the Indian subcontinent, in fact, are reflected most clearly in the way cultural practices have been shot by British photographers. This aspect comes out well in the pictures of Burmese women, the Shan chiefs of Burma, the Kandyan chiefs, or the Nepali royal families.

Yet, for many of these marginalised communities in the Indian subcontinent, photography became, in a sense, liberating. And women were the biggest beneficiaries of this new medium. Being photographed within the interiors of their households gave the women, torn between a repressive family structure and economic dependence on men, a new channel to articulate their aspirations. In most of the pictures, the women pose consciously as beautiful, fashionable, or powerful people. Despite the purdah, women portray themselves as confident human beings. Lala Deen Dayal, one of the earliest photographers, has recollected this experience in his memoirs. He narrates how all photographs of women had to be shot indoors and the difficulties of developing those photographs. Dayal was strictly instructed by the men of the families to bring his dark room equipment to the residences of these women and he was not allowed to leave until the photographs had been developed. This, he says, was done to maintain the purdah culture and prevent any leakage of the images.

Pictures commissioned by royal families of the subcontinent are a crucial aspect of portrait photography. Royal families became the biggest patrons of photography as they saw in it a new way to preserve their heritage. Commercial studios specialised in artificially enhancing the image of their royal patrons by embellishing the photograph or by painting on it. This essentially meant creating illusions so as to make the patron feel better about his stature. One of the most significant pictures in the exhibition is a comparative display of the original photograph of Maharaja Fateh Singh of Udaipur and a painted one which the maharaja commissioned later. It is clear that the decision to have a painted backdrop against the maharaja’s portrait was made to enhance the impact of the portrait, and perhaps to intensify the stature of the maharaja.

One interesting aspect, however, is how Indian traditions of painting merged with the aesthetics of early Indian photography. Most of these embellished photographs portray stout, voluptuous people with clean body lines, an aspect so generic in Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings and the sets of Marathi folk theatre. The convergence of different art forms is absorbingly displayed in “Lady Painting a Portrait”.

In the 19th century, photo studios also appeared as portable galleries and makeshift rooms, ranging from pushcarts, to horse-drawn vans to railroad cars. Even today, in many villages of India this tradition of photography remains intact. However, the medium itself has come a long way since then. The photograph as a document of individual histories is almost integral to the Indian subcontinent today. It has also become an art form to showcase Indian diversity, represented so well in all its complexities in this exhibition. Most importantly, the exhibits inform the viewer that photography is not so much about an unidirectional gaze but that both the subject and the photographer mediate from their different worlds and create something novel in the imprint. It is for these reflections that Citron and Allana write in their analysis of the exhibition: “The essence of the collection emanates from history painting, figuration, vernacular culture, globalisation, and mass media-related issues, creating a dynamic understanding of the past by disturbing preconceived notions about the colonial era.... Ethnography, identity, integration, and assimilation are therefore some of the key notions that underlie practices of capturing people and domesticating space—reordering how an image may be perceived in our digital present.”

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment