An elegant figure in an immaculately draped sari offers her porcelain hand to a turban-clad, white-bearded palm reader.
His head is cocked intently to one side as he examines her fate deeply, his ebony skin and grimy clothes a stark contrast to her chastity.
If it weren’t drenched in sepia, this arresting, posed image taken by Shapoor N. Bhedwar in the 1890s could well be confused for a painting, but that is precisely the accomplished photographer’s signature style.
His rare photograph is among a series of exquisite images on display at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla.
The three-week exhibition — it opened on Saturday and is titled ‘The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai, 1855-1940’ — explores the arrival and growth of studio photography in Bombay, starting as early as 1840.
Artful Pose is the Bhau Daji Lad museum’s first major big exhibition since it reopened in 2008 and, as such, is steadfastly Mumbai-centric — as are the museum’s permanent exhibits.
“We are unlike other museums in that ours is not a static view of history,” said Tasneem Mehta, the museum’s managing trustee and honorary director. “We interrogate the past and interpret its relevance because it has a bearing on our lives today.”
The painstakingly curated exhibition illustrates Mehta’s intent.
Although it does present a host of charming and exquisite images of 19th- and early 20th-century Bombay, all on loan from the vast photographic archives of Delhi’s Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, it does not pack in the predictable, nostalgic images of the Bombay landscape of yore.
For both Mehta and Rahaab Allana, the foundation’s curator, it was vital that the collection reflect the museum’s sensibilities too.
“These early studio photographs borrowed much in composition from painting and theatre, and the museum’s collection of models and dioramas speaks precisely to the tradition that these photographs embody,” Mehta said.
Once they settled on a shared period of reference, the creative collaborators picked photographers whose work provokes a dialogue on the interface between art and photography, the best example of which is Bhedwar.
“In Bombay, the more artistic and theatrical elements found a convivial space, as is evident in the early studio photographs by local and Parsi practitioners,” said Allana. “We’re also trying to project that, at this time, photography in India was very international.”
A number of family portraits are among these vintage photographs.
“Personal archives can reveal a lot about family history and help us construct a tradition and genealogy and trace social, political and pop culture references,” said Anuja Ghosalkar, programme executive for arts research and documentation with India Foundation for the Arts. “Historical archives can be doctored, but family photos, though perhaps posed, have a certain innocence and reveal a lot about that time and space. Also, with digital photography, there will be few remaining people’s archives in a few years.”
The exhibition will also present the work of Narayan Daji, brother of the museum’s founding father, Dr Bhau Daji Lad. Daji’s images from 1855 emphasise Bombay’s fascinating ethnography and, even though they conform to colonial requirements, Mehta says this colonial take on identity also echoes in the artefacts that comprise the museum’s permanent collection.
In this self-conscious endeavour to reexamine the 19th century, the exhibition also evokes questions on contemporary practices in photography.
“Photography is a young medium and one can still relate to those photographs today because they convey an accurate memory of those times,” said Matthieu Foss, founder of the Matthieu Foss Gallery at Ballard Estate, Mumbai’s first gallery dedicated to photography. “When photography became accessible, studios mushroomed everywhere. People not only had their studio photographs [put up] at home but would carry them on their person.”
Only few of those studios remain. Some, such as Hamilton Studio at Ballard Estate, are packed with relics from the past, archives that serve as a visual reference to their former glory.
“The opposite of the studio today is, in a sense, the street,” said Allana. “In this transition, photography became more journalistic and democratic, but also reached out to an ambition that is larger than either one. A photographer’s concern today is to not just dent the art world but to investigate his personal history through his work.”
(The Artful Pose will be held from February 28 to March 21 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla)