Vignettes from reels of a bygone era

One would have seen several photographs of the Taj Mahal till date. But have you seen the first-ever photographs of the world’s most popular wonders of architecture?

Clicked by Dr John Murray these paper negatives of the monument shine like pearls in the dimly lit gallery holding the exhibition – ‘Drawn from Light - Early Photography and the Indian Sub-Continent’. 

Presented by Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and Alkazi Foundation For Th­e Arts, “The exhibition has been named so due to two reasons,” says Rahaab Allana, the curator, elucidating, “The early photographers came to India and followed the pain­te­rs who had drafted India’s certain  kinds of landscapes. Also, the etymology of the wo­rd ‘ph­o­tography’ says it is a pra­ctice of creating images by recording light.”

“India was revealed to the world through these early ph­o­­tographers of the 19th century.” These were mainly milita­ry and medical officers in the English East India Company. Taking a cue from these deta­ils and expressing his love for photography, the curator has put together two exhibitions (exhibited in New York’s Rub­in Museum of Art and Brusse­ls’ Royal Museum of Fine Ar­ts) as one, for the viewers to enlighten themselves.

In the two galleries – one showcasing Landscapes and the other wh­e­re Portraits are displayed, ea­ch picture seems to be chosen after careful thought. The research that has gone into brin­ging this exhibition together is exhaustive for a viewer who would visit thinking it is just another of those exhibitions organised at a large scale!     
       
The images in the gallery with landscapes are capable of holding anyone’s attention. Especially those shot by Sam­u­el Bourne (of Burra Bazaar and Burning Ghat of Calcutta) and Lala Deen Dayal (of Amber City and Jeypore). Archi­ves from Bourne & Shepherd and Nicholas & Co. bring alive the memories of old Bombay and Mahakumbh, respectively.

 

In the process, Allana has paid a tribute to the efforts of these photographers. One an­a­­­lyses this through the portr­aits of photographers that are hung alongside their work. 

An interesting addition in this gallery is the section sub-titled ‘Cityscapes: A Panorama of Society where William Joh­n­son’s documentation of races and tribes such as Goan­ese Christians, Rajputs and Nagp­ur Brahmins provides nume­r­ous details about nativ­es in those times.

Undoubtedly, the gallery with portraits displayed in it is more vibrantly designed pull­ing in more crowds.


Displayed against dark background (as compared to light hues in the previous gallery) are royal portraits of less-popular rule­rs. The subject of portraiture in photography is dealt differently by the curator. Infact, the curator makes the artworks inte­ractive by explaining how ph­­­­­­o­­tography had different layers in early times by taking example of the portrait of Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur.


“I like how the idea of collaboration is used in embellished photographs,” says Allana poi­nting to the ‘Portrait of a Sta­n­ding Lady’ by D Nusserwanji. The red saree of the wo­m­an shines due to presen­ce of the white embellishments painted after the photo was taken.     
      
Along with these pictures are ethnographic portraits and also portraits from neighbouring countries of the present day India. Images from Ce­l­yon (Sri Lanka), Nepal and Burma have also been showcased.

With most of these photographs, the tec­h­­­niques that the photograph­ers have used have been mentioned, which provide viewers with details of the rich culture of photography that was growing in India and has today reached the sky.

“This exhibition is just a preliminary step,” says Allana intending that now he will wo­rk further to document the hi­s­­tory of photography in India and soon come up with another exhibition “which will be an­other micro history of photography in the sub contine­nt.” 

The exhibition is on view till at Twin Art Gallery, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts till September 30.

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