It took the art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha half a decade and more to complete her tour de force, The Archival Gaze, and its companion volume of essays, Points of View: Defining Moments of Photography in India. The book, finalised during the pandemic, is the product of substantial research into timelines, notes, and choice of images. Tracing the “historical, aesthetic and technical aspects of Indian documentary, artistic and news photography” and its “movement from the salon to the gallery, and from the newspaper column to the curated exhibition” (p. 7), the elegantly designed book, for the most part, succeeds in its daunting mandate. The text interleaved with rare archival photographs that maintain the integrity of their original colour and sharpness seamlessly takes the reader-viewer through the years.
The first decades of the camera in India saw the emergence of the photo studio, the arrival of itinerant photographers from abroad, and the memorialising of 1857 by Felice Beato and others. Perhaps one of the earliest war photographers, Beato used the new medium with ease, reconstructing the past as one would a set for a dramatic performance, with human remains as gory props. The photographic frame doubling as a stage became an abiding trope in early photography, and though Sinha does not deal much with the fascinating subject of surreal painted backdrops, these together with elaborately posed images, such as the photograph of a Mogul father with his children, often had a dream sequence-like quality about them.
If studios created illusions, folios of the “Views of India” genre represented in realistic detail the architecture and natural beauty of the country. Practitioners in this growing genre were the Scottish doctor John Murray, Abbas Ali, John Edward Sache, William Baker, and John Burke in northern India; Samuel Bourne (a crass imperialist, he was to set up the well-known Bourne & Shepherd studios in Shimla and Calcutta); Linaeus Tripe in the Madras Presidency; and Lala (later Raja) Deen Dayal in Secunderabad and Bombay. Sinha details the rapidly changing technologies around the camera and photographic processes; methods and techniques were often discussed in the newly founded photographic societies in Bombay and Calcutta. Indian members, such as the brothers Bhau and Narayan Dajee, both photographers in Bombay, and the antiquarian Rajendralala Mitra in Calcutta, were active participants.
- It took Gayatri Sinha half a decade and more to complete The Archival Gaze and its companion volume of essays, Points of View: Defining Moments of Photography in India.
- The first decades of the camera in India saw the emergence of the photo studio and the arrival of itinerant photographers from abroad.
- Folios of the “Views of India” genre portrayed India’s architecture and natural beauty.
- The beginning of the 20th century “marked the nascent phase of photojournalism in India”. Eastman Kodak’s Brownie democratised photography.
- The setting up of Camera Pictorialists in Bombay in 1932 helped to further institutionalise photographic practice. After the Nehruvian era, a growing cohort of women photographers became adept at experimentation and innovation.
The beginning of the 20th century “marked the nascent phase of photojournalism in India”, and crowd photographs in newspapers “challenged the images of passive inaction” as represented in state-sponsored ethnographic photographs of Indian types such as Lord Canning’s massive project The People of India of the 1860s (p. 107). Throughout the book, Sinha reveals interesting nuggets of information such as the membership of a Miss C. Sorabjee in Journal of the Photographic Society, the only known woman member. Could this be Cornelia Sorabjee, who, in 1897, was the first Indian woman to qualify as a lawyer?
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Soon, Eastman Kodak’s Brownie was to democratise photography, and as it was focussing on women as consumers, the camera was “marketed enthusiastically to this particular demographic” (p. 113). Formal studio photography had to increasingly contend with the domestic camera as a shutter-happy population, albeit a small number, clicked the ubiquitous family photograph. A certain individual professionalism was round the corner; Umrao Singh Sher-Gil bought expensive equipment to experiment with double exposures and mise en scenes with his photogenic daughters — Amrita and Indira — as models. At a more public level, the photograph was used extensively by the state as evidence and counterevidence. After the Jallianwala massacre of 1919, the rulers produced an album of photographs as a counter narrative to rising nationalist fervour in which the images taken by the well-known Bombay photographer Narayan Vinayak Virkar of survivors pointing to a bullet-riddled wall against which many people died played an important role. Sinha deals with the British attempts to protect the notorious General Reginald Dyer, juxtaposing this with one of Virkar’s images; however, she does not discuss how the state and others were soon to use photographs as active agents of their different agendas. That this oppositional role of the photograph, particularly through the popular media, was to steadily gain momentum became clear with the emergence of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in nationalistic politics. In spite of the passing of the Rowlatt Act, which placed limitations on the press, leading newspapers covered the Non-Cooperation Movement and the Dandi Salt March. Soon, images of the Mahatma were widely available as was the photograph (it remains iconic even today) of the revolutionary leader Bhagat Singh in a trilby (p. 144).
Photographer as artist
In 1932, the setting up of Camera Pictorialists in Bombay helped to further institutionalise photographic practice, and its sponsorship of the All India Salon on Photographic Art emphasised the role of the photographer as artist, an idea that grew from the Pictorialist tradition earlier in the century. Around the same time, in Bengal, Calcutta-based Annapurna Datta became the first individual woman photographer to make a living through her camera, and though Sinha has not shared images from their large body of work, the twin sisters Manobina and Debalina Sen Roy were soon imaginatively refashioning the childhood and the family portrait. Photographing public spaces, such as Shambhu Saha’s images of Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan or Pranlal Patel’s street photography, became popular. The Jyoti Sangh, founded by the Gandhian Mridula Sarabai, commissioned Pranlal Patel to document its work, an indication of nascent attempts to use photographs to create institutional histories. Similarly, Kanu Gandhi was documenting everyday life at Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram and memorialising his uncle through unusual frames and camera angles. It was also a time when “as freedom became inevitable, the nature of photography for Indians, a colonised people, was to change permanently” (p. 165).
The 1940s brought freedom, but it also saw the Bengal Famine of 1943, the untold bloodshed and destruction of Partition, and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Sunil Janah’s photographs of the famine and of tribal India are among the most compelling images of the times, and soon, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others were to memorialise the horrors of Partition, Gandhi’s last days, and the aftermath of his assassination. That images can often be far more searing than textual accounts is true of both cataclysmic times and the quotidian. Kulwant Roy’s motion-and-statis frame of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad sitting comfortably in a rickshaw while four barefoot men labour to take him to the 1945 Simla Conference on talks between Viceroy Lord Wavell and Indian leaders subtly highlights the inequities of a deeply divided society as do T.S. Satyan’s “Workers in India” and S. Paul’s photograph of three men bent over as they carry a heavy load uphill.
An independent nation encouraged the Press Information Bureau and, later, the Photo Division to use the services of talented camerapersons to photograph symbols of development and the country’s leaders. Most remained anonymous, as was the photographer who clicked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announcing the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. Wildlife photography and photo albums of weddings became popular, and Homai Vyarawalla photographed with equal panache not only the Dalai Lama on his historic journey out of Tibet but also political meetings and marriages.
By the end of the Nehruvian era, with the increasing popularity of colour photography, the studio once more found a place in the sun, and the importance of photojournalism led to newspapers appointing photo editors such as Kishor Parekh, Jitendra Arya, Raghu Rai, and others. Photographers experimented with inside and outside spaces and individual portraits and crowd scenes. Pablo Bartholomew visualised the ecstatic pain of morphine addicts, while a top shot by Ram Rahman of the crowds at Safdar Hashmi’s funeral in 1989 reminds the viewer of the charisma of the young and vibrant idealist.
A growing cohort of women photographers became adept at experimentation and innovation. While Dayanita Singh popularised the photo book and told life stories through images, Sheba Chhachhi documented women activists and ascetics, and Pushpamala N. reimagined ethnographic types.
For this century, Sinha provides an overwhelming amount of information, a kaleidoscope of Indian photography — vibrant, experimental, and controversial — and of new initiatives. The book showcases Vivan Sundaram, Prashant Panjiar, Bhupendra Karia, Sondeep Shankar, Gauri Gill and younger photographers such as Ronny Sen and Soham Gupta. The need for archiving, preservation, and exhibiting saw the establishment of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts with its extensive collection of archival photographs, Chennai hosted the Chennai Photo Biennale, and PHOTOINK was set up. Although the pandemic might have slowed the world down, the camera and mobile phone became active and conscientious recorders of those surreal days. As images flooded the world, there are perhaps few as poignant as the ones of Indian migrants after the imposition of the lockdown in May 2020.
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Skilfully drawing together almost 200 years of visual documentation and history, Sinha and her committed team of researchers, editors, and designers have provided reader-viewers with this valuable resource in the emerging discourse around photography. Making choices must have been an unenviable task, and some omissions are surely par for the course. At the same time, in the post-Independence phase, one misses photographs of wildlife, of mountain scapes, of political opposition leaders, and of the country under stress, whether at Kargil or in dealing with devastating floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. Given the scope of material referred to, more footnotes, though they would have been welcome, could have made the presentation cumbersome and untidy. Yet, a select bibliography, useful to both researchers and cognoscenti, would have given the volume even greater salience.
Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies. She is also Editor of Women and Photography, an online newsletter of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.