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Photo synthesis

Early Indian photographs worked very differently from the way modern photographs do. Indrajit Hazra elaborates.Monumental concern

india Updated: Nov 23, 2008 01:40 IST
Indrajit Hazra

What you see is what you get.

We don’t quite appreciate the photograph for what it is — a chemical residue left behind, acting as a go-between connecting the viewer and the subject. Instead, we end up fussing about what the photo represents.

Whether it’s that picture of someone you clicked on your mobile phone at a party, or that set of negatives you’ve given to develop after returning from that blur of a vacation, or the sepia-tinged ‘archival’ image of your great-great-grandparents or of a posse of sepoys from 1857, time always elapses between you, the viewer, and the subject depicted on this flat two-dimensional object that you peer into. But at the same time, the photograph exists independent of history. Viewing it, after all, is a ‘here-and-now’ activity.

It is this tricky, shimmering nature of the technology of photography and its product, the photographic image, that is broadly the subject of two recent publications: Christopher Pinney’s The Coming of Photography in India (Oxford) and the Alkazi Collection of Photography’s Painted Photographs: Coloured Portraiture in India (Mapin).

When we stare into these early photographic portraits, we inevitably try to suss out stories from the faces. Sure, the intent of the 1870 photograph of ‘Prince Gholam Mohamed, son of Tippoo Sultan’ was to pack in as much historical cache as possible (since the Real McCoy, the subject’s legendary father, was no longer alive). But what we really get to see is a tired, middle-aged man in post-apogee finery, resting his elbow on a partially hidden pillar next to a chair, standing and looking away from us as if he’s not happy at all about the whole staged situation.

But the photograph is notoriously inclusive. It cannot keep itself confined to what it shows. So when we see the image of a turbaned man bending against a wall with his hand placed on a chalk-marked circle, it is impossible to not be told that we are seeing an image taken by ‘nationalist photographer’ Narayan Vinayak Virkar of a survivor of the April 13, 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Taken a few weeks after the horror, Virkar’s photo documents the scene of a crime. As Pinney writes, the purpose of his ‘Amritsar’ series of photos “is not to produce likenesses that can jostle against Europeans inhabiting similar likeness in the imperial portrait gallery. It is, rather, to witness and preserve an event...”

These early ‘frozen in film’ objects are not confined to historical-political subjects. Take the ‘classically poised’ image of ‘A Nautch Girl at her Toilet’, taken in the 1870s in Jaipur. This is 19th century pin-up ready for contemporary consumption as an historical object under some-such label like ‘The private becomes public’. Or, take the numerous portraits of couples taken in studios, such as the Johnson and Hoffman image from the 1890s possibly depicting Rabindranath Tagore and his wife Mrinalini. As historian Malavika Karlekar points out, photography transformed women’s relationship with the public space, creating new parameters of female domesticity.

But while we look at a contemporary black-and-white photographic portrait for its ‘artistic’ qualities — the standard colour photo being the default for photo albums and framed pictures — early photography had the opposite set of aesthetics in place. Tinctures and colours were added to early photographs (as they were also in silent movies) to embellish and add ‘artistic’ value to a technologically limited product. Here we see literal evidence of what French literary critic Roland Barthes meant by photography always being “tormented by the ghost of Painting”.

The Alkazi Collection’s coloured photographs show how art forms, especially the Rajasthani miniature style, were injected into photos to produce startlingly ‘modern’ mixed-media kitsch-meets-twee portraiture that appeals to us today for very different reasons.

Used to, as we are, separating ‘historical’ photographs from ‘normal’ ones — whether differentiated through time, technology, style or function — early Indian photography captures someone else’s moment along with some other time’s. So it’s worthwhile and, yes, exhilarating to look at these images and free them from history.

In other words, what you get is what you see.