The name ‘Linnaeus Tripe’ hardly figures in most historical accounts of 19th century India, but a new exhibition here from Wednesday recognises one of the first Britons tasked with recording the land and its people that the East India Company came to govern.
The British ‘raj’ was one of the most documented administrations ever. Collecting local intelligence was one of the ways in which the British ruled over India, and Tripe’s photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum were part of the mammoth exercise undertaken over centuries of British rule.
An army captain attached to the Madras presidency, Tripe (1822-1902) was among the pioneers who used the then rudimentary techniques of photography. Sixty of his most striking views taken between 1852 and 1860 are being exhibited until 11 October.
Crispin Branfoot, an expert in south Asian art and archaeology at the University of London, told HT that Tripe’s photographs were among the first ones of Indian temple architectures. “There were images and paintings, but not such striking photographs”, he said.
In 1855, he was appointed by governor-general Lord Dalhousie to join expeditions to Burma and south India. After each trip he returned with over 200 large format paper negatives, which he developed in his studio in Bangalore.
Curator Roger Taylor said Tripe’s photographs were taken amidst illness, inclement weather and official duties. “He had an eye of a surveyor and the sensitivity of an artist”, Taylor said. Tripe’s task was cut short when colonial officials in erstwhile Bombay were forced to cut costs after the 1857 rebellion.
To make a print, Tripe usually coated a sheet of paper with dilute albumen and applied a light sensiting solution. After exposure and fixing, he took photographs with gold. Unlike earlier salted paper prints or later glossier albumen on pre-prepared paper, his photographs have a delicate sheen.
On display are photographs of architectural sites and monuments, temples, as well as roads, bridges, moats, landscape vistas and geological formations throughout India and Burma.