The Artful Pose exhibition, a collection of 19th and early 20th century portrait photographs at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, was a rich testimony to the multicultural history of the city.

Up the grand staircase of the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, past its glittering chandeliers, Victorian marble busts and vintage maps of the city was another treasure from a bygone era. Last month, even as two rival political parties continued to make headlines for attacks on ‘outsiders' in defence of whom they believed to be the true Mumbai resident (the ‘Marathi manoos'), the sepia tints of an exhibition of rare photographs seemed to tell another story.

At‘The Artful Pose': Early Studio Photography in Mumbai (c.1855-1930), held from February 28 to March 21, Kumbhars or potters from the Kutch, Banias or traders from Porbunder, Muslims from the Konkan, Roman Catholic women from the Salsette region, Uteets or bankers from Gujarat, Parsi philanthropists, and a host of other communities stood in black and white grandeur amid Koli fisherfolk and elegantly coiffeured Maharashtrian women from the Pathare Prabhu community — testimony to the multicultural history of the city. These mid-19th century portraits were juxtaposed with the drama of later Pictorialist photographs — highly stylised images that mimicked colonial turn-of-the-century paintings. Also part of this unique exhibition were the cartes-de-visite and posed-for family and other portraits of the early 20th century.

The photographs had a fitting backdrop in the recently restored splendour of the oldest museum in Mumbai. According to Tasneem Mehta, Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, this was the first important exhibition (a curatorial collaboration between Tasneem Mehta and Rahaab Allana) to be held here since its opening in January 2008. This rare collection, in the possession of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, was exhibited in collaboration with the Foundation and was accompanied by a well-produced catalogue with essays by Rahaab Allana and the likes of Prof. Partha Mitter.

Spirit of an age

A tribute to the history and evolution of early studio photography in India, ‘The Artful Pose' marked the transition from painting to photography in an era when boundaries between the two remained blurred. It is a landmark, for various reasons — it exhibited the ethnographic photography of Dr. Narayan Daji (brother of the museum's founding father) for the first time, as it did the early local portraits from The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombayby William Johnson, as also the dramatic pictorialist images of Shapoor N. Bhedwar.

The most interesting aspect of the exhibit was, perhaps, the fact that in tracing the evolution of Indian photography, it also told the story of the erstwhile Bombay, replete with characters, drama and sub-plots as it presented portraits of and interactions between individuals, families and communities. Daji and Johnson's Kamathi women, Kolis and Jain priests were in contrast with Bhedwar's Romanesque women, his experimentation with the play of light and his theatrical compositions of the interaction between mystics and maidens in his ‘Feast of Roses' and ‘Renunciation' series. Particularly striking are images that portray a society in transition, such as ‘Pupils and staff of the Alexandra Native Girls Institution' by an unknown photographer and ‘Gool Guli – A Rose Bud' by Bhedwar — reflections of the changing status of women.

Light on the past

Flashes of information from Bombay's photographic history brought alive the images for the viewer, be it in the form of details about the erstwhile Bombay Photographic Society, locations of historical photo studios in the city, or biographical information about Bhedwar, the Parsi photographer who studied in England, where he became a part of the ‘Brotherhood of the Linked Ring' — a group dedicated to art photography. The essays in the catalogue, on sale at the museum store, provide a more in-depth study of the field as they touch issues of racial stereotypes in ethnographic portraiture, the move from colonial to vernacular interest, issues of gender and visuality, as well as the arrival of the family album, privately commissioned souvenir albums and card-mounted photographs that “marked the democratisation of the medium towards the end of the 19th century.” Rahaab Allana also delves into the emergence of the verso culture with its ensuing “cartomania”, taking the reader on a guided tour of early studios, many of which continue to be in existence in modern-day Mumbai.

Meanwhile, in his essay ‘Performance for Camera – Shapoor N Bhedwar and the Dimensions of Studio Photography in Bombay', Allana shares something of historical interest about the medium — that the expansion of studios in India began with the arrival of equipment to the ports, namely the cities of Bombay and Calcutta.

The poses struck by a wandering yogi, leading a group of Parsi women in pied-piperesque fashion; the profile of a woman bent over a page from Shelley; portraits of large Hindu and Borah families; of ‘ladies of the court'; toddy tappers, bankers or daily wage labourers (even if under the colonial gaze) illustrate Allana's point and capture the history of a city built by multiple cultures and communities. Mumbai was once Bombay and ‘The Artful Pose' is proof of that.