Images of history

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Rahaab Allana. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

A cabinet card back cover for Raja Deen Dayal & Sons. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Unknown publisher; printed in Germany"The Hooghly Bridge, Calcutta"; tinted phototype postcard, c. 1900-1920, 87 x 139 mm. Photo: Alkazi Collection of Photography

Rahaab Allana, curator of the “Drawn from Light” exhibition, says the photographs featured are marked by a creative tension between universal aspects of photography and the culture-specific pictorial conventions of 19th century India.

“Drawn from Light”, an exhibition of early South Asian photographs from the personal collection of the renowned 20th century theatre director Ebrahim Alkazi, foregrounds the importance of photo archives. The exhibition, containing depictions of India in its formative years as a British colony, lends a visual dimension to the making of South Asian history. Rahaab Allana is one of the curators of the exhibition and the man behind the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi. A Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society in London, he had an early engagement at the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) and has curated, edited and contributed to national and international arts institutions and publications, including Marg, Lalit Kala Contemporary, The National Gallery of Modern Art, The Brunei Gallery (London), The Photography Museum (Berlin), the Rubin Museum (New York), and the Royal Fine Art Museum (Brussels). Allana also held a solo exhibition of his own photographs relating to heritage in India and South Asia, entitled Worlds of Difference, at the Romain Rolland Gallery, Alliance Francaise, Delhi, in April, 2010. He spoke to Frontline on the various aspects of this visual treat.

Photography as a technique was considered revolutionary in the Western world. However, in British colonies like India it was mostly used, during those times, to fulfil the Orientalist anthropological project. In that context, how do you think this exhibition is different?

This exhibition is trying to put forth some of the most iconic works of the 19th century from the South Asian region without trying to showcase a micro history. Rather, it is an effort to provide a synoptic view of the visual history available to us, as a preliminary foray into the earliest surviving samples of the portrait and the landscape, the two most prevalent tropes of image production at the time. Works from Ceylon [Sri Lanka], Burma [Myanmar] and Nepal have never been seen in their original formats here before and we are trying to unpack the history of the subcontinent through exchanges that occurred in the media, in art practice and in journalistic ways.

The section titled “Statuesque Enthrallment” speaks of the treatment of the body, the portrait, discourses on selfhood, ethnography, identity, likeness and objecthood—it reaches for a physical and perhaps psychological understanding of the human condition in countries like Burma, Ceylon, Nepal and, of course, how they are tied, via photographers, to India. The other section, titled “Borders, Bastions and Bridges”, showcases landscape photographs as sweeping visual sojourns, documentary surveys, that at one time enhanced the visual database of advancing troops, surgeons and doctors in the colonial era in search of territory, cure, and adventure…. The idea was to think about the following: as the first analogue image was produced over 160 years ago and the first digital one almost 40 years ago, is there a more profound reading, a shifting lexicon of shooting, a more abstract sensibility that can be applied to images as fact, as literacy, as collectible and as instigators of analysis?

Do you think the photographers here treated photography as an artistic form or as a mere tool for documentation?

Is the documentary not art? If you look at how artists are responding in the present to politics with their images or installations, the work of Amar Kunwar or Raqs Media Collective, then we can be certain that it is. The 19th century also has this sensibility about images that can change meaning and context by being viewed in different places at different times. In the present, we see them as hybrids, wherein there is an intersection of history with developments in media. That is how I see them… as contemporary objects. This is also why we have interactive iPad for people to take images of themselves against false backdrops and for us to load them to the web with time. Twenty years from now, if someone decides to type in “South Asian photography”, some of these images may pop up, asking us to question the role of the archive.

As we are now in a world of social media, the notions of a shifting identity and porous cultures are important to consider. Taking a person out of context and giving him or her a new backdrop makes for a parallel consciousness about the self. So images are not only oblique insinuators of a cultural threshold, an interpretive means… these images in the archive are contemporary objects, always negotiating time and history. The image, impermanently sealed on a surface, continues to be the most adaptable object of our times, taking on renewed identities with changing ownership, authorship and evolving circumstances. The image is no more stationary, but as the photograph, where can it go? What are the aesthetic and practical boundaries that it can recalibrate? In teasing out these ideas, I have realised that curating them is about the social construction of an evolving world.

There are pictures of famine, coolies, royal portraits, cities and religious traditions. Colonialism had different projects in mind. What do you think about this aspect of the exhibits?

The mapping of the subcontinent—the ramparts of Thanjavur or the view of people in Burma—rendered the setting/person accessible, navigable, and a cherished possession, that, in photographic form, was exportable. The cultural mechanism deployed through images, hence, also represents a historicising process. Museumised vistas articulate a supposedly unchanging and timeless portrait of places in the form of collectibles that were eventually retained in many of the national archives in Europe. However, the insertion of native subjects by the photographers within these pictures does more than contribute to the scale or provide a “vernacular emphasis” to these images—it underscores at times the unseen, yet fraught, relationship between land, communities and the imperial vision.

The exhibits remind one of the historical tradition vs modernity debate in a colony. Be it the newly emerging cities or portraits of women in a household or photo montages to enhance the traditional persona, the interface between the traditional and Western technology like photography is very interesting. What do you think?

In order to understand the actual impact of photography in India, we need to widen our scope to probe the general role of Western naturalist art in the field of colonial visual culture. Photography also fulfilled another peculiarly Western preoccupation: the search for the perfect replica, where you cannot tell the difference between the original and its reproduction. A long historical process in the West led to a series of inventions, including lithography, in the 19th century. It was in order to convey the peculiar qualities of light and shadow as well as the texture of reality in painting that pioneers like Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre stumbled upon photography. The superior “truth value” of the camera made trompe l’oeil in painting redundant. Soon, the avant-garde was forced to part company with mimesis. Ernst Gombrich made us aware that as human beings, we do not perceive things differently across cultures; it is simply that our artistic conventions determine our representation of the visible reality. It is not so much the particular Indian vision, since our perception as human beings is governed by certain universal rules, as the culturally constructed artistic conventions that affected the Indian photographer, the accumulated armoury of technical and other cultural influences that he drew upon. He was thinking of small-format, enclosed spaces with a tendency to flatten out the figure against a shallow ground, as well as bright, elementary colours and intricate decoration of the painted surface; in other words, the thriving trade in tinted or painted photographs. Admittedly, photographers in the West also tinted their pictures in response to demand. What is relevant in this context is the tension between the universal aspects of the camera in its usage and technical possibilities, and the culturally specific pictorial conventions, a tension that brings us back to the post-Mughal legacy.

Do you have any knowledge about where Ebrahim Alkazi sourced these photographs from? And what went on during the process of collection?

Ebrahim Alkazi was consistently trying to unearth the history of India through images, and most of the acquisitions were from auction houses. This was done with passion and rigour over three decades. He often solicited the help of scholars and historians to make the collection, one example of which is the Album of John Nicholas Tressider, the Civil Surgeon in Kanpur from the time of the Uprising. Our next publication will also concentrate on this moment in the history of photography in India.

The exhibition, in a way, is a short lesson on the history of photography in India. Can you tell us about the technical evolution of photography over the years and the unusual or novel aspects of some of the photographs exhibited here?

The Daguerreotype: It is a photograph taken on a copper plate covered with a layer of finely polished silver. The image material consists of tiny particles deposited on the polished silver surface. These slightly off-white particles form the image highlights by diffusing the reflection of light that falls on the finished plate. Depending on the viewing angle, a daguerreotype can appear as either a positive or a negative.

The Photo montage: William Johnson was a founder-member and secretary of the Bombay Photographic Society (established in. 1854) and the editor of its journal. He is believed to have operated a daguerreotype studio on Grant Road from 1852 to 1854 and a photographic studio from 1855 to 1860, with William Henderson as his partner for the second endeavour. Johnson edited The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay, an early ethnographic album published in 1863 and 1866. This album features montage images set against photographic backdrops that range from facades of buildings, sweeping landscapes, to those depicting a painted backdrop. From these playfully created images emerges an equally complex tableau of “worldmaking”, bringing together notions of iconicity, identity and even citizenship through a remanifested photographic format.

Wax Paper negatives of the Taj and Vijayanagar: During the mid-1850s, Alexander Greenlaw made over 100 wax paper negatives, from positions and elevations that adequately manifested his grasp of the landscape in Hampi, with the rugged and heavy equipment. His negatives have been rendered in remarkable formats, which indicate small lens apertures for sharpness and long exposures. Platinum prints: The “Shan Chiefs from Burma” image was taken during the 1903 Coronation Durbar in Delhi by Bourne and Shepherd. The image is a platinum print, a technique discovered by Richard Willis in 1873. The process was based upon the light-sensitive properties of iron salts forming an image on an uncoated paper, made visible by conversion into metallic platinum (or palladium). The resultant image is considered to be highly stable and permanent.