World Photography Day falls on August 19, and it is an apt anniversary to recall an elided history of image production from the post-Independence era. It is in those forgotten shadows that the life and works of the 83-year-old Om Prakash Sharma stand out as silent, strident markers that need due recognition today. It was O.P. Sharma who wrote to the Royal Photographic Society (U.K.) and the Photographic Society of America to recommend August 19 as World Photography Day. The request, supported by others, was accepted and the day celebrated globally from 1991.
O.P. lives in Delhi and his legacy is yet to be celebrated via a retrospective, although he has been recognised internationally — becoming part of museum and private collections in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Norway, Switzerland, and the U.S. He has received the coveted Stuyvesant Peabody Award and Lifetime Awards from the Delhi College of Arts, the Pakistan Salon Group, and the Asian Academy of Film and Television.
O.P. arrived in Delhi in the late 50s from Lucknow and began working at Modern School at the request of pioneering educationalist Mahendra Nath Kapur (father of art critic Geeta Kapur and of National School of Drama ex-director, Anuradha Kapur) and Kanwal Krishna, head of the arts department, in order to establish the photo unit there. Those were the times of a heady post-Independence modernism, and through Sharma, Kapur saw the possibility of honing the skills of young students with hands-on experimentation in bracketing, vignetting, spot printing, and double-exposure techniques that soon became the compositional and creative tools of modern image-making.
O.P.’s imagistic world drew upon a vast reserve of practitioners from across the world, especially from 1920s’ and 30s’ Europe: Man Ray, Brassaï and Rodchenko; and later, Canadian pictorialist Yousuf Karsh and T. Kasinath from India, and included elements from local subject matter — portraiture, landscape, flora and fragments. He used these to create new, subjective and innovative reconstructions.
Pictorialism in India has an extraordinary history. In Europe, one of the pioneers was
Victorian art photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander (1813-75) and then Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) published Pictorial Effect in Photography in 1869. Robinson later became a member of a photo-secessionist group called The Brotherhood of the Linked Ring, a group of like-minded practitioners who advocated and held salons to promote artistic photography (Shahpur N. Bhedwar from Bombay joined this fraternity and won several awards).
Around this time, Anne Thackeray (1837-1919), daughter of English novelist W.M. Thackeray, published Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, Browning (1892), a work about the lives of these 19th century literary luminaries, which also included their portraits done in a pictorialist style. Those images were taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, the grand-aunt of Virginia Woolf, who was born in Calcutta and spent her later life in Ceylon.
And by way of these complex historical roots, we arrive at individuals like Jehangir Taraporewala and D.R.D. Wadia, among others, and later, Jehangir N. Unwalla in Bombay. It was Unwalla who helped put together a photography volume in 1960 for Marg , a pioneering arts magazine established by Mulk Raj Anand in 1946, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary this September. Sharma often refers to Unwalla as a pioneer in the field, for whom he organised a tribute in the late 60s at Delhi’s Triveni Kala Sangam.
It was at this time that a flurry of photographic salons and groups came up in the country. L’avenir (The Future) in Calcutta; the Aurobindo School inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s journeys to India from the late 1940s onwards; and then the largest photo entity in the country, the Federation of Indian Photography, was established in 1953 under the secretaryship of author G. Thomas in Bombay before it moved to Bangalore. By the 1960s, The Photographic Society in Bombay was reported as having the largest number of members in the country, numbering 500.
An important junction
In 1980, Sharma and his wife Chitrangada, also a great photographer, were invited by arts patron
Sundari Shridharani to establish a photography department at Triveni Kala Sangam. The department turns 40 this December, an anniversary that signposts the making of a cross-disciplinary arts space for dance, music, fine art and photography under one roof, founded by Shridharani and Uday Shankar in 1950, built in 1963, and later reinforced by the creation of the Art Heritage Gallery in the same complex in 1977 by the late Ebrahim and Roshen Alkazi.
O.P. established the India International Photographic Council (IIPC) in 1983 and also authored four books dedicated to the lens-based practices of A.L. Syed, K.G. Maheshwari, T.F. Geti and Unwalla.
An institutional tribute is being planned for O.P. (although Alkazi did a solo in 1998, and more recently, in 2013, Ram Rahman exhibited select works at United Art Fair), but more than a commemorative moment, it will pay homage to the skill-based vocational and educational endeavours that individuals like the Sharmas devoted their lives to. Their work is being furthered by their son and practitioner, Aseem Sharma.
What O.P. represents today is the need for an engagement with analog at a time of expanding digital cultures so that we may not only trace a history of representation as a disciplinary subject but also retrace the changing course of image-making through a hands-on approach.
The writer is Curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, and Founding Editor, PIX.