‘Desires Wrought upon the Surface of an Image’: Photography as an Art in India

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by Rahaab Allana

‘A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into’ – Ansel Adams B.

B. Syed, Dabhol
Young Girl tinting a photograph
hand tinted-gelatin silver print
mid 20th century, 223 x 280 mm.
Courtesy The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

The concept of ‘Art Photography’ presents a conceptual and ideological dilemma that has persisted from photography’s invention in 1839 and the pioneering work of Fox Henry Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844-6). The early period was one of lively experiments, but in its growing stages there was a significant lacuna between amateurs and professionals. The ‘Art’ of photography may refer to pictorial conventions adapted by photographers, or indeed how photography as an art form is now on par with the lure (both aesthetic and economic) of painting.

Arrival in India\

Photography first arrived in India in the ports around 1840, followed by the establishment of societies in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It became a means of bridging the fields of patronage and industry, and of displaying the vast cultural tapestry of the people. With rising commerce and trade, the need for sophisticated studios steadily increased. People from all walks of life saw themselves magically imprinted on paper, and with time, photography was no longer treated as an isolated form of documentation or surveillance.

In its early years, photography was the prerogative of the imperial administration, the medical services, and also Indian royalty, who were great patrons. Its artistic impulses found nourishment from individuals like Ram Singh II of Jaipur with his exquisite images from the zenana, and self-portraits as a Hindu priest. Upon Ram Singh’s death, a tribute exhibition was curated by the Administrative Medical Officer and Secretary of the Jaipur Museum, Holbein Hendley, in the Jaipur Niwas Palace, where the king allegedly had his photo karkhana (studio).2 Like those of many other photographers, Ram Singh’s images also appeared like studies in Mughal miniatures, representing early photography’s link with established visual traditions. Here perhaps lies a key to deconstructing the early photographic image, both retreating from and responding to that long established Mughal aesthetic.

C.A Dannenberg
HH Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Bharatpur,
(Handnote on back) “Rajah of Bhurtpore,
photographed & painted by JCA Dannenberg 1863,
Sent to the Viceroy from the Rajah”,
hand painted-albumen print,
dated 1863, 144 x 110 mm.
Courtesy The Alkazi Collection of Photography
Taking the basic elements of one form, and interpreting them within the broader context of the Mughal/photographic tradition also occurred when local ateliers adapted to photography (especially in the Mewar/Udaipur region), showing continuity in an arts tradition. Similarly, the small format flat image against a shallow ground, the use of hyper-real colours and the intricate decoration of the painted surface – in other words, the thriving trade of the tinted photograph – became popular with time, expressing a bold fusion of fine art and photography.

Transformations

A gigantic leap into the realm of popular ‘bazaar’ photography in the city, and its formal affiliate, ‘studio’ photography, happened in the early 20th century, once the medium began to cater to general society. From the stamps and mounts of several photo studios, we notice a growing number of addresses in Bombay areas such as Kalbadevi Road and Fort, as they became affordable areas for the middle and professional classes. Images were projected on surfaces such as ivory or canvas, outlined and then painted, similar to the way in which the camera obscura was used by landscape artists in the 18th century. This use of the photograph as raw material for creating life-size portraits is suggested by the presence of studios such as P. Vuccino, a company established in 1879 on Meadows Street. The trophies and insignias surrounding their logo disclosed their eminent patrons and the prizes received, such as the 1879 exhibition gold medal for the Fine Art Exhibition in Bombay.

Photographers as ‘Artists’ appeared at a distinct moment in the history of photography in India; these ‘artist-photographers’ based their work on the aesthetics of exchange between tradition, fine art and even performance. This allows for a more complex and unrestrained view of the discipline, one in which the camera develops close links with painting and printmaking. Furthermore, these photographers sought to publicize their spaces as art ateliers, equipped with statues, furniture and painted backdrops, further emphasized by the versos of card-mounted photographs.

Shapoor N. Bhedwar, ‘Tyag No. 4- The Mystic Sign’,
From the Album “Art Studies”,
Carbon print, c. 1890, 260 x 345 mm.
Courtesy The Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Early Indian photographers were keen to keep up with the innovations in the West, especially the Bombay photographer Shapur N. Bhedwar (1858- c.1915). Bhedwar appears at a moment when independent studios by resident photographers are on the rise, boldly expressing social desires through popular iconography. In England, Bhedwar was a friend of Ward Muir – a critic and writer for the British photographic press – as well as art-photographer Ralph W. Robinson, son of pioneer Pictorialist photographer H. P. Robinson. The allegorical style of Robinson echoes in Bhedwar’s narrative series ‘The Feast of the Roses’ and ‘The Initiation of a Zoroastrian Priest’, certain plates of which were reproduced in the London Illustrated News with a text by William Simpson (1823-1899), the renowned travelling painter in India. These images, associated with a certain innocence, speak of a distinct connection with high Victorian fine art; they were perhaps even used for conceptualising a group of oil paintings.Bhedwar was one of the earliest exponents of a Pictorialist style in photography, represented by atmospheric compositions and lyrical modes arising from movements of the Fin de Siécle. His European counterparts would have included photographers such as Alexander Keighley, Paul Bergon and Frederick Henry Evans, all of whom also produced photogravure work.

Furthermore, Bhedwar began to participate in the activities of the creative group called Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, founded in April 1892, which had broken away from London’s Royal Photographic Society. They were dedicated to ‘art photography’, reacting against industrialization and the instantaneous ‘snapshot’. They sought to produce work that drew on the conventions of painting, emphasizing the photographer as artist, constructing compositions inspired by allegorical or mythical subject matter. Bhedwar eventually won a number of medals in salons in England and India, and published some images in 1893 in the American journal Camera Notes, edited by Alfred Stieglitz.

Even though India was not the only country to introduce mass prints in popular religious art, in India mechanical reproductions, including photographs, eventually took on an independent life as sacred icons. With the introduction of the new mass media, printed images were transmuted into portable icons for household use. These prints thus lost what Walter Benjamin calls their modern ‘exhibitionary’ value, as they acquired a new ‘cult value’.

The modern archive of images

Umrao Singh Sher Gil
Standing in the Hallway
Self portrait, c 1930.
Silver Gelatin Print, 11 x 7.8 cm.
Courtesy: Umrao Singh Sher Gil Estate.

One of the greatest exponents of Pictorialism in the 20th century was Umrao Singh Sher-Gil of Majitha (1870-1954). Born to the landed aristocracy of the Punjab, Umrao Singh was fascinated by astronomy and the arts and had an abiding passion for photography. He went on to document his family life, with a large proportion of self-portraits, revealing a highly self-conscious auteur-photographer imaging himself. His works include autochromes and stereographic photographs. He and his wife left Lahore for Budapest soon after marriage, and their daughters, Amrita and Indira, were born there. His photographic archive highlights the role of personal agency in the construction of a modern subject and forms an extraordinary record of the life-world of an Indo-European family. Here we have an interaction of a photographer not just with his own image as a canvas, but with one of the greatest painters of India, his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil. This is re-manifested in contemporary times by Vivan Sundaram’s archive of morphed images entitled ‘Re-take’. These developments in photography between the modern and contemporary also signal how the fusions and collaborations developed during the 18th and 19th centuries were divided into new categories in the 20th century. Objects like photographs, when displaced or dispersed, were put under new headings in new hands; the people in photographs, when they changed countries or loyalties, took on new identities.

As for Pictorialism, in 1932 Jehangir Unwalla (1896-1963) helped found the modern, spirited, Camera Pictorialists of Bombay; they also provided reports on the state of art photography in India during the hey-day before World War Two. Unwalla, well remembered and honoured, lacks an accessible body of work; yet he was still active as late as 1960, when he wrote an essay for Marg magazine’s issue on photography as an art.10

Independence and beyond

Vivan Sundaram
Amrita Dreaming 2, 2002,
Digital Photomontage, 544 x 483 mm.
Courtesy: The Artist

During the Independence Movement, it was not so much the so-called ‘Indian’ perception of reality, as the unique subject that captured the imagination of those in India. The rise of photojournalism led to a new group of photographers who consciously altered their trajectory, given the modern history they were witnessing. But it was not merely documentary, it was photography as an expression of an era and of those who changed the culture of India. Photography after Independence, therefore, takes on a nuanced tone, its artistic qualities used in the documentation of political and sociological agendas.

 

Shambhu Shaha (1905-1988), employed by the YMCA in Calcutta, and influenced by the German Bauhaus movement, was a successful freelance photographer by 1932. In 1935 he was invited to Santiniketan to capture life at Visva-Bharati until 1941. His photographs represented India at the Chicago World Fair in 1939. Some of his most powerful images were those of the East Bengal refugees in 1971, influencing the next generation of photographers.

Similarly, Sunil Janah’s (b. 1918) first photographic commission was to document the Bengal Famine of 1943. This led to full-time work for the Communist Party, documenting the freedom struggle and its leaders, as well as the social conditions of peasants and workers. In 1946 he was contacted by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71) and they subsequently travelled and photographed together in south India while Bourke-White completed her assignments for Life magazine between 1946 and 1948.

Homai Vyarawalla, Nehru,
Silver Gelatin Print, 1940s.
Courtesy HV Archive/ The Alkazi Collection of Photography
Two of the greatest photographers in India, whose work has recently come to light, are Homai Vyarawalla (b.1913) and Kulwant Roy (1914-1984). Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman press photographer, had the pleasure of seeing her name appear in print in magazines like the Bombay Chronicle and the Weekly. It was Stanley Jepson who urged her to submit photo features with text on utility services during World War II. Many of her contemporaries, such as Prem Prakash, Baldev Kapoor, R. Satakopan, T. S. Nagarajan, P. N. Sharma, Ram Dhamija and Kulwant Roy, would also publish regularly in the Weekly. She later became an adept photographer, shooting the National Movement, the Parsis and even city spaces in Delhi and Mumbai.

Kulwant Roy was the head of a photo agency called the Associated Press and took innumerable photographs during Independence. He published his work in important political newspapers such as the Amrita Bazaar Patrika.

The Contemporary

Apart from the partition of India, which marks the passions and pains experienced in the forcible creation of borders, the contemporary presents other horizons of contestation too. It exists in a landscape that has a powerful modern visual paradigm, highlighting a sense of cultural difference. An exhibition recently put together by chief curator Sunil Gupta presents the issues in art that emerge in the 21st century in the Indian subcontinent – global capitalism, citizenship, neo-imperialism, minorities, exile and secularism – which become the challenging new frontiers of art practice in photography for a humanist understanding of the contemporary world.

Pushpamala N., Bombay Photo Studio,
Navsara Suite, Mumbai 200-3,
Sepia toned silver gelatin print,
629 x 470 mm.
Courtesy Shumita and Arani Bose
Collection, New York.

Cultural practitioners and artists have always tried to understand the varied ways in which we should and do look beyond borders and whether they monitor the inner workings and deeper cultures of engagement in our dealings with art and curatorial practice. The ongoing exhibition in Winterthur, entitled, Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 years of photography in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh seeks to highlight indigenous photographers from these countries as a marker of what the subcontinent was before the two partitions, to suggest that there is a history of image making outside Europe. It features over 400 photographs encompassing early trends and photographers from the 19th century, the social realism of the mid-20th century, the trajectory of photography from the studio to the street and eventually, the playful and dynamic image-making that marks the present. The show has five distinct sections – Portrait, Family, Body Politic, Performance, and The Street; over 70 contemporary photographers including Raghu Rai, Pushpamala N., Rashid Rana, Dayanita Singh, Raghubir Singh, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, Gauri Gill, Sheeba Chachi, Rashid Talukder, Ayesha Vellani and Munem Wasif; and works drawn from important collections of historic photography, including the Alkazi Collection of Photography (Delhi), The Abhishek Poddar Collection (Bangalore), The Udaipur City Palace Museum Archive (Central India), Whitestar (Pakistan), and the Drik Archive (Dhaka). They join many previously unseen images from private family archives, galleries, individuals and works by leading contemporary artists.Photographers in the present speak of being interested in photography because of its indexical link to the world – a connection often manipulated and transformed by an accomplished image-maker. Artists are at pains to show that their photography – and by extension all photography – is never only a window to the world, but to their own world. An artist like Pushpamala first seduces viewers and then through various stylistic devices throws them back out – asking them to reflect on the ideas explored, and ultimately on the nature of photography and image making itself. A variety of printing techniques brings the materiality of their work as object to the forefront; hand colouring, a range of papers, a diversity of hanging styles, props, costumes and backdrops (as in the case of Pushpamala – an echo and reminder of her earlier career as a maker of three-dimensional objects), emphasize this further.

It could therefore be claimed that the current use of graphics and editing software for the creation and manipulation of images draws upon varied modes of image making. The ability to merge, fuse and transmit the principles of one aesthetic format to another becomes the basis on which art communicates. Therefore, we have come to a period in art history where there is great confusion, or rather deliberation, between the ‘art historical’ and more general visual culture. This occurs when more marginalized formats become mass produced, when the regional expresses itself in print culture, when we obliterate the terms of high and low art. And perhaps this is where ‘Art Photography’ rests, traversing the ephemeral world of desires wrought upon the surface of an image.

Rahaab Allana, Curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi, is a graduate in Art History/Archaeology (M.A.) from SOAS, London, and Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. He is the author of Inherited Spaces, Inhabited Places (2005) and the Guest Editor of Marg Volume 61: Aperture and Identity—Early Photography in India (2009). He is currently guest editing the India Photography Reader, Vol. 1, entitled Movements (Delhi: Yodapress).

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