Four lensmen explore the subject of caste-based identity in today’s context as they strive to reinterpret an ambitious project once undertaken by the British

In 1850, Lord Canning initiated a project with a view to photograph Indians and create a collection that could be taken back as a souvenir. After 163 years, photographer, photo-historian and archivist Aditya Arya has come up with a project that requires a re-look at that imagery. While the original project, an 8-volume publication compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye, was called The People of India, the latter is named “Re-Imaging the People of India 1868-2013” and comprises works by photographers Mahesh Bhat, Sandeep Biswas, Dinesh Khanna and Dileep Prakash.

The ambitious project later turned into an official cultural documentation exercise for the British Raj and had several civilian and military photographers capturing rulers, tribes and communities. With this exercise the British rulers sought to better the understanding of their subjects. The colonial gaze gets clearly established in not just the way people from different castes, communities and tribes are photographed but also through how they are described in the accompanying text. In the photograph ‘Pundit Aftab Rae, Hindoo Priest Brahmin, Allyghur,’ the accompanying text says, “Persons of this class are rarely to be met with in this part of Hindoostan…Their habits are migratory, generally seeking employment in the civil department under Government. They go to any distance to obtain it…” In another — ‘Hoona Mull, Uggurwalla Bunnea, Hindoo, Hissar’ — the photographer observes “No matter how small their beginning…they (Uggurwallas) persevere in a wonderful degree till they attain wealth…” Seldom focusing on the expressions, the photographers in these rare albumen prints were clearly engaged with capturing the caste-based identity and thus chose to focus on their clothes and work.

On the other hand Mahesh, Sandeep, Dinesh and Dileep follow an agenda very different from that of J.C.A. Dannenberg, E. Godfrey, J. Mulheran, G. Richter, etc. In this collaborative photographic project, held under the aegis of Neel Dongre Awards/Grants for excellence in photography in 2012, and presented by India Photo Archive Foundation, the four photographers set out on a journey to re-interpret these works in today’s context.

The subjects of these photographers are again people from different castes and communities shot in their homes, street and places of work. Unlike in the originals, the photographers haven’t consciously worked to establish their identity as shaped by caste and work and have portrayed them as any other individuals. By capturing a Brahmin, Dinesh Shukla, who runs a paan and cigarette kiosk in Saket; Madhav Singh, a Gujjar who makes tea outside PVR cinemas in Saket; Meera Devi, a lower caste woman who sells terracotta pottery and several others, the artistes touch upon the issues of caste identity in today’s context. Their clothes, surroundings and occupation do nothing to suggest their caste and community.

In fact, Dileep has even done away with the captions leaving it open to interpretation. If somebody hasn’t seen Sandeep’s image of Lallu Ram where his caste is mentioned in the caption, it will be impossible to guess his caste from Dileep’s black and white image where Lallu stands with his wares kept on a bicycle in a street. The photographer tells us that he is more occupied with addressing the big disconnect between the India of 1850 and the India of 2013. The tools he uses to address that concern are a large format 4X5 sheet film, a tripod and a slow speed film. “For me, caste is redundant in today’s age. I wanted to connect these two Indias by giving it the same aesthetic treatment, which is why I used a wood-field large format camera, black and white sheet film, slow shutter speeds and warm tone prints.”

The photographers chose from a limited database of people and, as a result, we have more than one photographer working with the same subject. Dinesh Kumar Bansal appears in the works of Bangalore-based Mahesh as well as Dileep’s but has been shot in completely different styles. While in Sandeep’s works, colours and backdrop render artistic aesthetics to the composition, Dinesh’s diptychs and triptychs are environmental portraits and close-ups, giving an insight into the subject and his/her environment. Mahesh’s intimate portraits of his subjects like Taj Mohammed, a weaver, Ram Jatan Chauhan, a Rajput, Sangita, a nat, Prem Chand, a sonar, depict them as any other individuals.

“These photographs and these devices displayed here are markers of time and they should be looked at in that perspective. It’s about history of photography and the idea of how looking at things has changed,” says Aditya Arya, curator of the show.

(The exhibition is on at the Art Gallery, India International Centre, till April 26).