A cleft-chinned boy, a governor’s page, dressed in ceremonial finery smiles confidently at you across the gulf of time, a little Tamil girl clutching a book as she stands on a chair looks like she’s just finished with a crying fit, a family poses in front of their houseboat on the Kelani Ganga river in Colombo - a boy child on the woman’s hip as her large-eyed daughter clings to her side, women solemnly plucking tea leaves on an estate, magnificently caparisoned elephants in a Buddhist procession, that looks so much like the Trissur Puram in Kerala, you forget for a second that you are looking at pictures of Sri Lanka in the 1880s.
All these wonderful images are part of an exhibition at the National Museum entitled Imaging the Isle Across: Vintage Photography from Ceylon. Drawn mainly from the Alkazi Collection of Photography, these photographs reveal, to the contemporary Indian viewer, the similarities and the differences between colonial India and Ceylon.
Along with rare prints, recordings, the first documentary films focussing on the streets, structures and people of Ceylon - the land Portuguese, Dutch, Danish and French sea farers first identified as Zeilon that’s now Sri Lanka - and photo albums from early studios in Colombo and Kandy, the exhibition will also feature screenings of the film Song of Ceylon by Dutch Burgher Lionel Wendt, a central figure in the history of photography in Sri Lanka.
Besides all this, there will be video projections explaining the different photographic processes - daguerrotypes, albumen and gelatin silver prints, among others - used in the creation of the images on display.
“We got these from the George Eastman House in the US. These beautiful videos show the connection from the canvas to the camera,” says Rahaab Allana, curator for the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.
He adds that the exhibition has tried to represent the different groups of the country including the Buddhists, the Hindus, and followers of the Dutch Reform church.
“We are also trying to focus on the visual paradigm predicated on industrialisation,” he says.
Visually and intellectually stimulating, Imaging the Isle Across will bring Indian viewers to a greater understanding of all that we share with our southern neighbour, and make us more aware too of how our histories and cultures diverge.
The exhibition will be inaugurated on September 26 at 5 pm at the National Museum Auditorium. It is a partner event of the Delhi Photo Festival, 2015.