Scientific Temper

Priya Khanchandani is a curator, writer and former lawyer based in London
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A visual history of innovation and imagery

THE INDIA SEASON currently being held at the Science Museum in London, aptly titled Illuminating India, puts museum objects at centre stage as vessels through which the history of this immensely diverse nation can be told in the 70th anniversary year of Indian independence from British rule.

One of two exhibitions, 5000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017, focuses on the history of science and technology in India from its ancient roots to the present. The objects that are included range from some of the earliest standardised weights originating from the Indus Valley Civilisation in 3000-2500 BCE, to a new payload or satellite technology launched in 2017 as part of India’s flourishing space programme.

Among the most memorable historic objects is a folio from the Bakhshali Manuscript on loan from Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and recently proven to be the world’s oldest known recorded use of the zero symbol. We might take zeros for granted, but they have not always existed and originate in India, along with several other fundamentals of numeracy, such as the system of counting numbers in multiples of ten units—tens, hundreds, thousands and so on—and the abstract concept of infinity.

A more recent innovation on display, one that is capable of saving lives, is a battery-powered Embrace Nest, a cost-effective neonatal warming pouch that functions in place of standard hospital incubators, which are not always available in rural areas due to cost or the lack of uninterrupted electricity supply. Developed by Indian and American students at Stanford University, over 200,000 of these pouches have been distributed so far, giving many premature babies a better start in life.

The objects in this exhibition are important and have been carefully chosen, but the broad time period the Science Museum has decided to cover risks essentialising what is an extremely diverse nation with a long, varied and nuanced scientific past. Lead curator Matt Kimberley, a Sanskrit specialist, admits that the remit was somewhat daunting.

“India has played a fundamental role in the development of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, so we wanted to draw out some of the highlights,” he explains. “When you’ve got a 5,000-year history you cannot possibly explore it all, but we wanted to draw out some of the major contributions across all of those areas in that period.”

Another highlight of the exhibition is the display next door, a survey of the development of photography in India. This part essentially charts the history of modern India, pivoting around the events of 1857 and 1947, through the lens of the camera. It draws on exceptional loans from a range of international collections, including the Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation, National Gallery of Australia and Wolverhampton Arts and Museum, presenting both Indian and Western photographers as equals. According to the Assistant Curator Shasti Lowton, “We wanted to insert Indian named photographers side by side with their Western counterparts in a chronological manner to give them the same level of importance, as it is rare to see them shown in this way.”

In the first of a string of inter-connected galleries is the oldest photograph of the exhibition, a fragile image dated as early as 1855, only a few decades after photography was first invented in Britain. It was taken by Ahmed Ali Khan, India’s first recorded photographer, and shows the Queen of Aud in a pose for a portrait. The image has been delicately painted with highly-stylised watercolour paint embellished with hand-guilding. The fusion of the new medium of photography with methods used by an earlier tradition of portraiture marks the beginnings of what would be an epochal shift in favour of the photograph.

This image is displayed alongside photographs taken in the aftermath of the uprising of 1857, including an album borrowed from the neighbouring Victoria and Albert Museum opened to a page showing a photo by British photographer Felice Beato. Beato arrived in Lucknow in 1858 and convinced his guides to dig up the corpses of Indian soldiers nearby and arrange them in front of the ruins of a palace. This resulted in a disturbing but moving staged image of a scene dotted with skeletal remains, which ended up being disseminated in the Illustrated London News at the time, as though it was taken immediately after the uprising.

The exhibition, which unfolds chronologically, progresses to a group of fascinating 19th-century court photographs, including the first known portrait of the Hijra community, which was taken in 1880 by a group of Indian photographers and forms part of an album borrowed from the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in Delhi, a major lender to the exhibition. Another photograph, taken around 1890 by Shapoor Bhedwar, India’s first internationally acclaimed photographer, shows a group of Indian women draped in plain, flowing white or black saris and leaning over bolsters, in a distinct pre-Raphaelite manner, creating a curious fusion of visual styles. This section is followed by carefully chosen documentary images that respond to and shed light on the events surrounding 1947.

The modern and contemporary sections that follow, which depict post-Independence India, are particularly refreshing. A series of photographs by Mitch Epstein taken in the 1980s rejects an orientalist or exotic reading of India and focuses instead on everyday people. One shows a group of young boys with their father seated in a car against the stage-like backdrop of a twilight sky in Karnataka. Another shows a female cabaret dancer in costume and high-heeled boots seated in an intimate space smoking a cigarette. This section also exhibits iconic snapshots of street life in Mumbai by Raghubir Singh, the first Indian photographer to document India in colour.

The final room showcases the work of three exciting contemporary photographers whose work uncovers issues affecting India today. Sohrab Hura’s Sweet Life is a painful ten-year exploration of his relationship with his mother following the breakdown of her marriage and psychological illness. Vasantha Yoganathan’s A Myth of Two Souls ties together India’s rich tradition of mythology with the present by depicting everyday imagery along the legendary route of the Ramayana through India today.

Having been transported from colonial Britain in the mid-19th century to the upheavals of the fight towards Independence and thereafter, we arrive back where we began. Through Olivia Arthur’s portraits of members of the LGBT community in Mumbai that celebrate sexual diversity at a time when it is vehemently resisted, we witness an India that is as vulnerable to oppression as ever.

Although science might be a forte when it comes to the history of the Subcontinent, the photography exhibition is surprisingly the one that does it justice at every level, from the monochrome vulnerabilities of Partition to the multicolour candour of urban life today.

(5000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017 is showing at the Science Museum in London as part of the Illuminating India season until March 31st)