Peeping into history through photography

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A Review of ‘Drawn From Light: Early Photography & The Indian Sub-Continent’ [Image: Alkazi Foundation for the Arts]

Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) in colloboration with the Alkazi Foundation held over a month long photography exhibition inaugurated on the occasion of 175th World Photography Day i.e. 19th August, 2014, in New Delhi titled “Drawn from Light: Early Photography and the Indian Sub-continent”. The exhibition was curated by Rahab Allana, Author of Inherited Spaces, Inhabited Places & Editor, PIX.  As reported by the Sunday Guardian, Allana’s intention behind holding the exhibition was to “stress on the relevance of archiving”. Considering the objective, it was fitting enough to have photographer Dayanita Singh as the guest of honour during the inauguration ceremony as her book File Room (2013) is photographically considered to be an “archive of archives”.

The Statesman noted that “Drawn From Light showcased the rich tradition of both portrait and landscape photography.” While the landscape section exhibited works of photographers like John Murray, Alexander Greenlaw, Samuel Bourne, Deen Dayal and William Johnson, the portrait section mostly showcased the work of unknown photographers as also Felice Beato and Richard Gordon Matzene.

In 2013, Nigerian photographer George Osodi photographed the monarchs of Nigeria thinking that his work would be symbolic of “peace and unity” in Nigeria despite the challenges which the country faced from insurgent groups like Boko Haram. From the portraits on display at IGNCA, it seemed like the erstwhile monarchs of India too sought to echo similar messages (as envisaged by Osodi) through their portraits. Despite their fading royalty and increasing British clout, they probably wanted to communicate through photography their influence, sense of superiority and desire to govern. A case in point could be that of Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur and Mewar who ruled for a period 46 years beginning 1884 AD. The exhibition mentioned that the Maharaja had changed the colour and background of a particular portrait of his. The organizers further asked the audience as to why such a thing was done?

A possible answer to the same could be that the Maharaja wanted to communicate a resilient and towering image to the masses. The image should not have presented the Maharaja as being subservient to the imperialistic British power. What gives credence to this theory is history as the Maharaja of Udaipur gave the Prince of Wales and Queen Mary a cold snub when he refused to receive them on their visit to Udaipur in 1921. Earlier, he had also not attended the Delhi Durbar on two separate occasions. Eventually, Maharana Fateh Singh was deprived of any real executive authority by the British and relegated to the status of a figurative head in the kingdom.

Besides carrying portraits of Nawabs and courtesans, the exhibition showcased portraits of families reflecting diverse cultures. These included portraits of Svetambar Jain devotees, Bohra and Parsi families and Buddhist monks from Burma. The spiritual energy of the Indian subcontinent has fascinated the western world since ages and it was the same force which catapulted a pioneering war photographer like Felice Beato to capture images like “The Forty-nine Gautamas in the Sagaing Temple” which was a photographic manifestation of the divine.

However, the real question pertains to figuring out as to why there is such a predominance of group portraits in the photographic history of colonial India while representing religion and culture. A response to the above mentioned has been provided by University of California’s History Professor Mr Vinay Lal who has written an essay reviewing Christopher Pinney’s Camera Indica. He opined that Pinney felt “colonial photography was interested not in Indians as individuals but as specimens of types.” He further wrote, “In India, on the colonial view, individuals did not exist, one could only speak of communities, principally in terms of religion, caste and race. India was a conglomeration of “types”, and photography was most effectively utilized in eliciting and documenting these types.”

The other section of the exhibition concerning landscapes has been described by India Today as “what seals the deal.”  In her essay “In Plato’s Cave” published as part of the book On Photography (1977), American writer Susan Sontag has stated, “Photographs are really experience captured.” Perhaps, in no better words can one describe the work of Dr John Murray which also found a way amongst 250 photographs onto the walls of IGNCA. A surgeon by training, Murray ended up capturing some of the earliest photographs of the Taj Mahal when he was posted in Agra as part of the medical service of the army maintained by the East India Company. Murray, hence, “captured” his “experience” in Agra, a behaviour which Sontag theorized a century later. As a contemporary art viewer, what makes one interested in Murray’s work is the fact that his work explores Taj Mahal from varying angles which have not been noticed by a large section of people as the most dominant representation of Taj Mahal, widely published in calendars, have been photographs taken from the front view.

Another set of images which struck a chord with the audience happened to be clicked by Captain Alexander Greenlaw. Greenlaw’s photographs of the ruins of Vijaynagara had been exhibited in the past also by the Alkazi Foundation at Lalit Kala Akademi. Though Greenlaw was primarily shooting what can termed as rubble or leftovers of a magnificent kingdom, the technique he employed to enhance the massiveness of his subject calls for a special mention. The Hindu notes, “A linguist (Greenlaw), who saw Hampi and Vijaynagara with a modern eye, he often shot his subject matter from a low angle to allow the sense of grandeur to pervade the frame.” Centuries later when Colonial India has itself evaporated, Greenlaw’s work on Vijaynagara serves as a testimony to what Roland Barthes wrote in his seminal work Camera Lucida (1981), “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Though an empire of the stature of Vijaynagara can never be erected again but photographs clicked by Greenlaw and preserved by the Alkazi Foundation shall keep its memories alive in the times to come.

The exhibition, which culminated on 30th September, with its two sections i.e. Statuesque Enthrallment and Borders, Bastions and Bridges, provided a much needed photographic peep into India’s colonial history. It is in the interest of modern India to decipher the visual codes which remain hidden in such colonial works.

(This article was originally published in Tasveer Journal.)


Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Pinney, C. (1997) Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Pain, P. (2009) ‘Splendour in ruins’, The Hindu, 31 March. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

Singh, P. (2014) ‘Photographic memory’, Livemint, 14 August. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

Majumdar, P. (2014) ‘A look at the early days of Indian photography’, The Sunday Guardian, 16 August. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014].

Matra, A. (2014) ‘Tryst with colonial India’, India Today, 22 August. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

(2014) ‘Of vintage photography’, The Statesman, 3 September. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

Banerjee, S. (2014) ‘Analogue diaries’, The Hindu Business Line, 12 September. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

Lal, V. ‘The Burden (and Freedom) of photography’, Tasveer Journal, Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

(2013) George Osodi: Kings of Nigeria. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

Fateh Singh of Udaipur and Mewar. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

The Forty-nine Gautamas in the Sagaing Temple. Available at [Accessed 5 October 2014]

When Karan Thapar forgot about the Modi interview

The date was 18th November, 2013, and the world’s largest democracy was inching closer to holding its General Elections in the following year. At that time, I was an undergraduate student of Journalism at the University of Delhi. A couple of days back, while casually browsing on the web, I came across an important bit of information from the perspective of a curious media student. The famous Australian talk show ‘Q&A’ was coming to India and was scheduled to hold a programme to be telecast live on ABC and Doordarshan.

In order to participate in the programme, one was supposed to register with Q&A and forward their questions to their team via email. Six renowned public figures from India and Australia were chosen as panellists – Shashi Tharoor, Karan Thapar, Swapan Dasgupta, Shoma Chaudhury, Stuart MacGill and Pallavi Sharda. I had previously been to several talk shows, including NDTV’s much-celebrated programme ‘We The People’ ,but so far, I had never got an opportunity to participate in an international talk show. Hence, I prepared a set of questions and forwarded them to Q&A.

I prepared five different questions for the panellists. Thereafter, I received an email stating that one of my questions had been selected and I was supposed to come to Kingdom of Dreams situated in Sector 29, Gurgaon, on 18th November, 2013, to pose my question to Shashi Tharoor.

The day finally arrived and I decided to travel to Gurgaon via Delhi Metro. This was my first visit to Gurgaon and I must admit that I was impressed on seeing the infrastructural might of the buildings in the city on my way to Kingdom of Dreams. After reaching the venue, I was received by crew members of Q&A who handed over to me a cue card on which my question had been printed. It read the following: “For Shashi Tharoor — Unlike Indian democracy, Australia isn’t infected with dynasty-ridden politics as exhibited through realpolitik feuds between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. In your article, “Shall We Call The President”, you had advocated that a Presidential System would provide India with much needed political stability, but will it be able to institutionalize inner party democracy in India’s dynasty-plagued political system?”

After a brief interaction with the organizers, the audience was ushered into the auditorium much before the arrival of the panellists. The organizers saw to it that the ones whose questions had been selected were seated in different parts of the auditorium and that the boom mikes were well in reach of them and so were the cameras. The programme began at 3 PM with Tony Jones as the host. During the course of the programme, the panellists deliberated over a range of issues starting from the retirement of cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar, to the safety of women in India.

One of the most polarizing points of discussion was concerning the current India Prime Minister Narendra Modi. At that point in time, Modi was BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, and far from having achieved the tally which he did during the elections. A certain Mr. Ajoy Roy questioned the panel in regards to Modi and Rahul in the context of 2014 General Elections. He said, “What does this panel know about the credentials of Mr Rahul Gandhi and Mr Narendra Modi and its implications for the people of India and Australia if one of them is elected as the next Prime Minister?”

The question provoked sharp responses from the panel members. Reacting to this query, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor claimed that the “disregard for historical facts that Narendra Modi shows every day has rubbed off on his fans.” On the other hand, right wing commentator Swapan Dasgupta supported Modi and suggested that his emphasis on minimal government, high growth and honest leadership were the reasons why he happened to be “a favourite to win this election.” Dasgupta also drew comparison between Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot.

However, this did not go down well with Aussie spinner Stuart MacGill, who said, “You can’t go on criticising our Prime Minister and comparing him to a man that has been involved in something that was really quite offensive to a big part of your population.” Soon after, news anchor Karan Thapar too shared his views in regards to the subject. He declared that neither Modi nor Rahul deserved to be the Prime Minister. He said that Modi carried the “moral responsibility” for what happened in Gujarat during 2002. He added, “The Supreme Court had gone on record in April 2004 in a specific judgement — it wasn’t just a comment made in court — to call him and his government, modern-day Neroes.”

This statement was factually disputed by Swapan Dasgupta who claimed that “it was not a judgement” but “was a stray comment of a judge.” Dasgupta’s fierce opposition infuriated Thapar who went on to say, “Forgive me, April 12th, 2004, the Zaheera Sheikh judgement in the Best Bakery case. I assure you I am right. After the show is over, I will send you the judgement.”

The programme soon concluded and went off-air. I wasn’t able to pose my question as the show had run out of time, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lively discussion. Thapar and Dasgupta immediately left the auditorium, but I wanted to talk to them in regards to the subject which had generated a war of words between the two. I followed them on the way out and managed to tag alongside them as they were moving towards the main gate. I reminded Karan Thapar that in his famous Narendra Modi interview, wherein the then Gujarat Chief Minister made an unceremonious exit, Thapar had referred to the same quote of the Supreme Court wherein the Gujarat administration had been referred to as “Modern Day Neroes”. I, however, insisted that during the course of the interview, Thapar had claimed that that particular statement of the Supreme Court was an observation and not a part of the judgement.

Thapar disagreed with me and asked me to check the judgement online. He said that he referred to that quote as a part of the judgement of the Supreme Court, and that it was Modi who disputed it by claiming that it was an observation. I said that I would willingly do so but then I told him that I clearly remember him agreeing with Modi on the subject and saying that it was an observation. Thapar, being in a hurry, left early and so the conversation came to an end.

After I came back home, I once again saw the much talked-about Karan Thapar — Narendra Modi interview. On seeing the video, I realized that I was correct. When Thapar brought up the issue of the Supreme Court drawing parallel between Modi and Nero, Modi rebutted by stating, “I have a small request. Please go to the Supreme Court judgement and is there anything in writing, I’ll be happy to know everything.” Thapar responded by saying, “It was not in writing. You’re absolutely right, it was an observation.”

But the story does not end here. I researched further and tracked down the Supreme Court judgement Thapar was referring to. To my bewilderment, I realized that the Supreme Court judgement in the Best Bakery Case (2004) indeed makes certain crude remarks against the Gujarat government and said, “The modern day Nero’s were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected.” I was stunned. The pressure of delivering news consecutively for 24 hours and on all 7 days of a week is so huge that even iconic television news moments like Karan Thapar interviewing Narendra Modi end up being factually incorrect.

Who would believe that during the course of the interview, both Modi and Thapar were wrong on facts? Who would believe that Thapar doesn’t even remember what he said during that interview which won him so much of journalistic appreciation? Who would believe that Thapar would advocate to have said something else? I wouldn’t! Would you? The point over here is that both television anchors and politicians awfully get their facts wrong in today’s age of incessant media coverage. What is worse is that a couple of years down the line, they tend to claim that they had said something else!

(This article was originally published in Youth Ki Awaaz.)

Al Jazeera – An Analysis of the Qatar based news network


There are two countries in the Middle East which are being increasingly perceived as powers to reckon with. The first is the Islamic Republic of Iran which has since the days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 matched up to the might of the United States of America. Ironically, the other country is the tiny nation of Qatar which has brought about a wave of changes in the entire geopolitics of the region by institutionalizing a powerful and autonomous news network besides being brave enough to vouch for hosting the FIFA World Cup in the heat of the Arab land.

The usage of the word ‘ironical’ is intentional as Qatar happens to be a Sunni majority country as opposed to the Shia majority Iran. As far as the political structure is concerned, both the countries exhibit a very strange kind of authoritarianism. Even though Iran is a functioning democracy, the Constitution of Iran empowers the Supreme Leader of Iran, by and large a religio-political authority, to have the final call on all matters of governance and administration. Qatar on the other hand is far less democratic and is one of the few nations of the world which is credited with the rather unceremonious title of being an “absolute monarchy.”

In order to counter the growing influence of the Western Media in regards to the representation of the people living in the Orient, specifically the Arab World, the Emir of Qatar financed the launching of Al Jazeera in the year 1996 following the disputed closure of BBC’s Arab News Channel. Al Jazeera’s claims towards maintaining editorial independence are based on the finer nuances of its funding mechanism. The “Emiri Decree’s” which finance operations at Al Jazeera come by way of loans (like the “500 million Qatari Riyals” granted by the Emir in 1996 to kick-start the network) instead of direct government subsidies.

Ideologically speaking, Al Jazeera is generally viewed as a left-of-centre media organization which is more or less critical of the expansionist interventions of the United States in the region of Middle East which happens to be quite a mercenary in terms of mineral and oil wealth. However, domestically Al Jazeera can be termed as a news network which belongs to the liberal school of thought since it has gone out of the way on several occasions and taken up issues which would go usually unnoticed in conservative Muslim-majority societies. Al Jazeera’s reportage of the War in Afghanistan was its first supposed “claim to fame”. During the tumultuous war time, Al Jazeera aired videos of several terrorists including Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. While this lead to heavy criticism of the news network, a plus point of this exercise was that Al Jazeera was applauded as having given an opportunity to both the sides to speak. Al Jazeera’s maverick coverage of war events continued during the extended conflict in Iraq in 2003.

As Al Jazeera grabbed several awards at various international media functions, it also expanded its operations by launching Al Jazeera English in November 2006 and Al Jazeera America in January 2013. Coming to the core issue of the legal status of Al Jazeera, a news report published in the Gulf News on 13th July, 2011 reported that Al Jazeera was planning to turn into a “private organisation devoted to public interest” but this spectacle is yet to occur as the Emir of Qatar is still the one who is empowered to call the shots at Al Jazeera as was reflected recently when the News Director of the organization ordered the reediting of a video clip on the Syrian conflict to include the comments of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani.

In terms of audience reach, Al Jazeera claims to have a firm audience base of 40 million in the Arab World. A research conducted by Allied Media Corp stated that the bulk of Al Jazeera viewers watch the news network for an average of 2-3 hours every day. The research pointed out at the alarming yet misogynistic nature of the Arab society since the male viewers clearly outnumbered the female viewers by a large margin. We can conclude by stating that even though Al Jazeera is brilliantly managed and is quite an exception when scrutinized through the lens of its background and history but it would still have to improve a lot in order to gain greater credibility and acceptance in the West which is possible only if Al Jazeera restraints itself from excessively raking up issues cornering around the twin themes of Pan-Islamism and Pan-Arabism which are the hot favourites of its large audience.  

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, was the research worth it?


Theatrical Poster of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. (Wikipedia)

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag as a movie not merely charmed the audiences but it also managed to strike a chord with the critics, something which is quite extraordinary when compared to the lasting trend in Bollywood ie the Hindi Film Industry. So far, the movie has managed to garner over 100 crore rupees at the box office which is worthy enough of being called a statistical spectacle.

Over the past one decade, sports as a film genre has been portrayed quite consistently on the big screen. We’ve had a number of film productions including Lagaan, Iqbal and Chak De India which managed to pull off a double whammy in terms of commercial and critical success. On the other hand, some experiments like that of Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal and Patiala House not only left the critics fuming but also failed to generate any buzz at the Box Office.

Coming back to the core issue, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag as a movie has got governmental recognition. Various state governments including that of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi have exempted the movie from being subjected to any kind of entertainment tax. Such steps of these state governments can be viewed as forms of moral compensation in a nation which has a habit of ignoring all sporting greats besides the ones who are a by-product of the game of cricket.

Taking into account the recognition which Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has received, one would certainly think very highly of the movie in terms of research since it is a sort of a biography, if not an entirely original one. However, the team behind Bhaag Milkha Bhaag has committed a very small yet significant error during the course of the movie. The error in itself is meaningless but it raises quite a few fundamental questions which more or less make us believe that Indian filmmakers are indeed very causal researchers.

The said error occurs when the movie is nearing its killer moment. Milkha Singh is in Pakistan to compete against Pakistani athletes in a goodwill tournament which has been organized by the Government of Pakistan in collaboration with the Government of India. As the final race is about to begin, various individuals including Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Milkha Singh’s sister tune in the radio to follow the developments in Lahore live. The radio commentator can be heard as announcing, “It seems that entire Pakistan has settled inside the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.”

Err, what did you say? Gaddafi Stadium? This race was supposedly held shortly after the 1960 Rome Olympics. There was no place called Gaddafi Stadium at that time in Lahore. The Lahore Stadium which was originally built in 1959 was renamed after Libyan Dictator Muamar Gaddafi in the year 1974. If we historically trace the sequence of events, this race would have allegedly taken place when Gaddafi was in his twenties, his date of birth being in 1940. What is worse is that Gaddafi would have been a nobody at that point in time since the coup in Libya (which Gaddafi was a part of) took place in 1969.

The incorrect usage of the “Gaddafi stadium” is not only comical but it shows how even intelligent filmmakers like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra show no concern for historical events during the narration of their movie’s plot. It is one thing to dress up events in order to create necessary “movie masala” but to refer some place by a name which was non-existent at the occurrence of the said event is pure stupidity and dumbness.

Glamourizing terror? Rambo and Obama do it better!


The controversial cover page of Rolling Stone which allegedly “glamourizes” Boston bombing suspect, Dzokhar Tsarnaev (Rolling Stone)

A popular magazine in the United States by the name of Rolling Stone has courted controversy by placing a glamorous image of Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover page of its latest issue which will hit the stores on August 3rd. Dzokhar Tsarnaev happens to be an accused in the Boston Marathon Bombings which took place on April 15th this year and led to the death of 3 people besides injuring 264. Dzokhar carried out the entire attack in complicity with his elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev. While Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in the shootout which occurred between the brothers and Boston police, Dzokhar was arrested in an injured state and has been charged with several offences pertaining to terrorism. The attack carried out by the brothers was in retaliation to what the brothers considered to be an unjust and hostile foreign policy of the United States towards Muslim majority countries.

Coming back to the core issue, the Rolling Stone’s latest move has attracted sharp reactions from persons based both inside and outside the United States. Some have given a call for boycotting this issue of the magazine. However, the intimidating response which the magazine has attracted appears “immature” and “shallow in perception”. There has not been a single news report which has suggested that the Rolling Stone have anywhere by means of its content tried to justify the act of terrorism and butchery carried out by Dzokhar Tsarnev. The head caption on the cover reads “The Bomber” and the text printed underneath it reads “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

The subtext makes it quite evident that Rolling Stone’s cover story attempts to trace the personal journey of Dzokhar from being an everyday college going lad to a terror bomber. The allegation that the photograph used promotes terrorism or glamourizes it would be more suitable for those Facebook fan pages and groups where American girls have described Dzokhar as “cute” and have asked for him to be “pardoned”. It would also apply to Internet sympathizers of Dzokhar who actively lend support to the acts of terror carried out by the likes of Dzokhar in response to what they consider to be a “ruthless assault of America on Islam and Muslims.”

The American entertainment industry however cannot be totally absolved from the allegation of lionzing terror as was done in Sylvester Stallone starrer Rambo. The representation of Afghan Mujahideen as patriotic freedom fighters fighting against Soviet repression was done effectively and repeatedly by Hollywood as part of CIA-sponsored propaganda against communism. The world today is aware of the havoc which was caused by these mujahideen once they came to power in Afghanistan. If American human rights activists are genuinely opposing glamourization of terror then they should not only condemn several award-winning movies made in the 1980s but they should also stand in opposition to US President Barack Obama’s decision to lace Syrian rebels (associates of Al Qaeda) with weapons to fight the illegitimate regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. We need to categorically realize two things in regards to the Syrian conflict: First, the United Nations and not the United States has to take the lead in toppling the Assad regime which is guilty of fuelling a conflict which has left 93,000 people dead and second, the United States cannot aid an Al-Qaeda affiliate group when Al Qaeda itself is responsible for murdering thousands of innocents citizens across the world. Till Washington doesn’t take such a step, there is no point in misinterpreting and blowing out of proportion a story whose purpose is nothing but to bring to its readers the transformation of a boy into a terrorist.