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]