The Great Revolt of 1857 generated a deep interest amongst many foreign photographers to capture the city on their lens. “Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera, C.1860-1950” currently on at NGMA showcases rare vintage prints from the collection of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. Rahaab Allana, the curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts dwells upon the history of photography in Delhi. Excerpts from an e-mail interview.

On the relevance of the exhibition in the present setting of the Commonwealth Games 2010

One of the significant representations of a city being transformed into a theatrical spectacle was during the Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911. Interestingly, during the second Durbar, Lala Deen Dayal had taken photographs of acrobats and polo games which are in the exhibition and highlight the history Delhi has with hosting large scale productions and athletic games. Interestingly also, these events were greatly publicised and productively criticised by national and international publishers and periodicals like New India, the Indian Mirror, Amrita Bazaar Patrika and the Hindu Patriot.

This is an important exercise that sheds perspective on how a city is viewed by those who live there and often how events such as these transform the manner in which we approach the city in the future. We must remember that India as a whole and Delhi as a city has been witness to over 150 years of photography. With the visible and gradual attrition of historical sights and spaces in the city, we are drawn to investigate our invaluable cultural repositories today, through the disappearance or transformation of key structures.

On the earliest professional photographers

Some of the first users in Europe and overseas came from the ranks of the medical services. One of the earliest known British practitioners in Delhi (whose works are not in the exhibition given their fragile condition) was Dr. John Murray (1809-1898). An adept lensman, he was exceptionally proficient in producing large format studies as paper negatives of Moghul architecture and topographical views in Agra and Delhi as well as the North-Western Provinces in the mid-1850s.

The penchant for creating an image of ‘home' through the deployment of the picturesque aesthetic is best illustrated in the works of professional photographer, Samuel Bourne (c.1834-1912). He arrives in India in January 1863 and by 1865, his business had become Bourne & Shepherd with Charles Shepherd as his new partner, running two well-established studios in Calcutta (1867) and Bombay (1870). In the mid 1860s, he was working in Delhi, documenting sites affected by the Uprising, perhaps as a memorial to the deceased on either side, often positioning his local associates as objects for scale.

The late 19th and early 20th century is witness to the rise of many photographic studios such as Vernon and Co. and even Indian practitioners. Some of the most significant names in this regard who were in Delhi would be Lala Deen Dayal and Mirza and Co. One of the most compelling images is the one used for the invite “The Begum of Bhopal”, striding, possibly with a guard in toe behind her, across the durbar amphitheatre, the year Delhi was made capital of India, a year that saw 2,50,000 people as spectators. Her veiled anonymity is her presence as the photographer clearly expresses. But I wonder, how she saw Delhi through the veil, did Shahjahanabad or purani Dilli appear to her as a gossamer, transient inner city, a jostling quarter of the erstwhile Mughal royalty…

Influence of great Indian revolt of 1857 on the Indian photography scene

The last section in this exhibition offers glimpses of a city that transformed in the wake of a nationalist movement, with new seats of authority represented in areas such as Rashtrapati Bhawan. The small group of images composed in this section highlight not only studios in Delhi during the Independence Movement such as the Photo Service Co. and Simla Studios in the Regal building, Connaught Place, which no longer exist. I think images of this time provide interesting mediations in a transnational landscape of cultural production that we see around us….a production and output that sees important demanding positions of citizenship, neo-imperialism, minority cultures, exile, secularism as part of an identity that makes a city…