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Books: Essay

Framing the Fable

Somak Ghoshal is an editor and writer based in Bengaluru
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This study on the evolution of photography in the subcontinent strikes a fine balance between the medium’s formal and aesthetic aspirations


Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present | Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral | Prestel | 304 pages | Rs 3,715

THE GERMAN PHILOSOPHER, Walter Benjamin, begins his classic essay of 1931, ‘A Short History of Photography’, with a reference to the ‘fog’ that surrounded the origins of the medium in the early 19th century. The invention of photography, Benjamin writes, was a long time in the making, since Leonardo da Vinci improvised a design for the camera obscura in the 16th century, building upon a concept that had only had a nebulous existence until his time. It would take another 300 years and the efforts of two visionary French inventors, Nicéphore Niépce and Louis Daguerre, for photography to get anywhere close to its contemporary incarnation. By the time Benjamin undertook his survey, the medium had been through a series of technical innovations for over a century, many of which had taken place at a galloping pace. As a consequence, photography’s ‘continuously accelerating development’, Benjamin noted, had ‘for a long period foreclosed all retrospective appraisal’.

It is useful to remember this formulation in any historiography of photography, a medium that has become ubiquitous across the world more than any other, in spite of its relatively recent provenance. As Benjamin insinuates, any narrative about the evolution of photography will necessarily be fraught with a conflict between the medium’s formal and aesthetic aspirations. For the historian, the challenge lies in balancing an account of the practical advancements in the field with an outline of the subliminal tensions that underlie photography’s uses and abuses.

In their book, Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present, Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral tread the fine line between these two opposing impulses. Their richly documented study describes the circuitous trajectory of photography through its persistence in the subcontinent for over 150 years, while allowing glimpses into the technological evolutions that enabled it to become a repository of several kinds of history as well as a critical chronicler of modernity.

The volume, handsomely produced and studded with over two hundred images, begins with a proviso, which also lays out its broad ambitions. ‘It is the premise of this book that, in a world pervaded by forces of globalisation, it is no longer possible to understand the photographic medium through conventional lenses such as nationality and geography,’ Gaskell and Gujral write in the introduction. Photographers from India, they claim (drawing on the example of Dayanita Singh, who was invited to show her work at the German Pavilion of the 2013 Venice Biennale), are increasingly carving out an autonomous place for themselves in the international discourse, without having to bear the baggage of national identity, or the expectations that arise thereof, in their work. Based on this principle, the authors further assert that ‘the realities of current cultural production’ may be best understood only when seen through ‘a determinedly international lens’.

Conceptually, this is an audacious and liberating approach to the history of photography in the subcontinent, one that allows for a long perspective, going beyond the colonial, ethnographic and anthropological readings that have accrued from decades of scholarship on the subject. While acknowledging as well as elucidating the role of historians such as Christopher Pinney in deepening our understanding of the Empire’s relationship with photography, Gaskell and Gujral also draw attention to unique points of departure and relatively less known practitioners in the history of the medium. Photography on the subcontinent, as they show, was much more than a cultural capital, or a scientific and forensic tool. It is, rather, a receptacle of a history of emotions and an invisible, often ignored, lifeline for other creative disciplines such as painting and writing.

Photography in India features the work of 101 photographers, from early studio portrait-makers to Lala Deen Dayal down to Gauri Gill. While most of the usual suspects inhabit this visual hall of fame, plenty of unusual names also leap out of its pages. Dashrath Patel, for instance, one of the founding figures of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, who isn’t really known for his photography, appears in the course of the narrative, as does Jyoti Bhatt, the chronicler of ‘living traditions’ of India’s folk and tribal arts. And Nasreen Mohamedi,now remembered for her abstract drawings, though she also did some strikingly original, minimalist photographic work during her brief life, which weren’t probably meant for the public eye. The appearance of these unexpected figures among the parade of the stalwarts (Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Kishor Parekh, Homai Vyarawalla—the list is long and formidable) is not only pleasing for its sheer serendipity, but also for the statement it makes about histories of inclusion and exclusion, which, ever since the dawn of Enlightenment, have been mostly reflected through a stridently Eurocentric lens.

If breaking the tedium of the ‘canon’ is one of the intentions of this history, its more radical aim is to shake up the rubric that goes by the name of ‘Indian photography’. The selection seems to argue that such a category is inauthentic as well as redundant—not only because it reduces all creative pursuits to merely a means of forging ethnic identity, but also because it fails to convey the more capacious potential of the phrase (‘photography in India’) that the authors choose to use in the title of the book instead.

In an admittedly ‘controversial’ editorial decision, Gaskell and Gujral also include the work of several non-Indian photographers, each of whose sensibility was informed by their time in this country

In an admittedly ‘controversial’ editorial decision, Gaskell and Gujral also include the work of several non-Indian photographers, each of whose sensibility was informed by their time in this country, spent travelling or on assignment. In turn, many of these chroniclers (from Margaret Bourke-White to Marc Riboud to Mary Ellen Mark to Steve McCurry) enabled those who live and work in India to look at the nation through an altogether fresh perspective, one that could be involved yet aloof, curious while also remaining distant.

PHOTOGRAPHY’S PREOCCUPATION with distance and closeness has been an abiding conundrum ever since its discovery. As art historian Steve Edwards reminds us, the great photojournalist Robert Capa, who took the famous photograph of a loyalist soldier allegedly at the moment of being shot to death during the Spanish Civil War in 1936, believed in the dictum that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’. At its most obvious, the camera, especially when fitted with a powerful lens, can act as a tool that brings the subject closer to the photographer, without either having to cross over physical distances. The motives behind some of early colonial photography, as Gaskell and Gujral show, offered a classic illustration of this phenomenon.

The camera, when trained on the scenic beauty, architectural marvels and archaeological ruins of the Empire, allowed members of the ruling elite to ‘enact a visual colonisation of the land’. The device enabled them to edit out all the blemishes and create the illusion of a promised land devoid of any blights, meant to be seen and understood as such by government officials and fellow citizens back home. The preponderance of this picturesque mode in the early years of colonial photography concealed more truths than it revealed. The camera smoothed over the rough- hewn reality of the Empire, leaving the Indian landscape to be ‘viewed, understood and therefore ‘owned’ by the West rather than on its own terms’, as Gaskell and Gujral put it.

Apart from closing geographical barriers, photography also brought socially disparate entities within the same frame. It could act as a leveller, or at least appear to be one. One of the most memorable images in the book captures Jeremiah Nelson Homfray, ‘superintendent of the Andamanese Orphanage’, with a group of Andamanese subjects at the studio of John Edward Sache and WF Westfield that was established in Calcutta, then the capital of British India, in 1865. The photograph shows the European gentleman standing erect, with his face turned away from the camera in a dignified pose, while his charges lie higgledy- piggledy about him, arms and legs entwined, staring directly into the lens. Should there be any doubt, the caption identifies Homfray as the ‘keeper’ of these seven Andamanese, who were reportedly stripped of their European clothing and made to pose next to him for the making of this photograph.

What looks at a glance like easy intimacy among the subjects is shown up as insidiously false as the deliberate design behind the arrangement is exposed. In spite of the proximity between Homfray and the seven Andamanese, the photograph does not bring them any closer. On the contrary, it widens the already vast gulf existing between them, making the power dynamic crudely obvious. Thus, even in this relatively early moment of its existence, photography found its niche as an instrument of manipulation, capable of capturing facts with scientific precision but also distorting them just as easily, and ingeniously, out of context.

From the hard-hitting documentation of the Madras famine (1876-78) by Colonel Willoughby Wallace Hooper to the stylised portraits of marriageable young men made in the late 1970s at Studio Suhag in Punjab, Gaskell and Gujral present a wide array of visual documents that present photography as the Janus-faced medium it really is. As the Canadian photographer Jeff Wall famously summed it up, there are two prominent myths about photography: one that it tells the truth, and the other that it doesn’t.

AS EARLY AS 1861, the French photographer Antoine Claudet noted that “Photography indeed can invent, create, and compose as well as copy. In fact, particularly in portraiture, the machine copies what the true artist has invented, created, and composed, which could never have been copied or represented if the photographer had not possessed genius.” Were it not for the clear association between photography and the “true artist”, Claudet’s paean would have simply signified a wide-eyed wonder at a new and exciting technology emerging in his time. However, his conscious articulation of the distinctive qualities that lend to photography a painterly aura elevates his admiration for the medium, and indeed the medium itself, to a taller pedestal.

Photography, as Claudet imagines it, is not merely the result of chemical reactions facilitated by a mechanical contraption. It is, rather, a mystical process, involving the hand, eye and mind of its maker, as in any other creative endeavour. For almost as long as it had existed, photography has grappled with this anxiety about its status. Not surprisingly, much of its history in India too is haunted by a similar question: do photographs properly belong to the realm of the arts, subject to the ebb and flow of inspiration, or is the camera just a utilitarian imitation device, a mechanical aide-mémoire?

In the 21st century, when prints of iconic photographers fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in auctions, such doubts may seem uncalled for, but the respectability of the medium in the art world could never be taken for granted. Even when early practitioners of photography were driven to put it to documentary use, the impulse to modify, narrativise or de-contextualise photographs was never far off. Felice Beato, who chronicled the aftermath of the revolt of 1857, was believed to have staged some of his shots retrospectively. In recent times, McCurry, whose reputation was sealed by the image of the Afghan girl on the cover of the National Geographic magazine in 1985, became embroiled in a scandal involving extensive use of Photoshop to alter his photographs.

In the last two chapters, Gaskell and Gujral explore the many playful, essayistic, whimsical and sophisticated paths that photography in India has taken in the recent past. Even when it has assumed a common, memorialising role, embodied by the ubiquitous family album for instance, photography in India has managed to find inspired practitioners. Sohrab Hura, for example, turned the harrowing progress of his mother’s mental illness and disintegration into his photo-book, Life is Elsewhere, a dark and macabre family album if there were any.

As a nod to the timeline described in the subtitle (‘From the 1850s to the Present’), a cursory afterword on digital photography in India, especially on the public’s obsession with selfies and self-fashioning, wouldn’t have been out of place—though in that idea may well be the germ for a different book. But as it stands, there is enough in this history to keep the reader absorbed and questioning. From Amit Madhesiya’s close-up of people watching movies to Pushpamala N’s collaboration with Clare Arni to reinvent Orientalist scenes to ragpicker- turned-photographer Vicky Roy’s haunting portrayals of street children, photography in 21st century India continues to be a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting possibilities.

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