Past, print and focus

An ongoing show abridges more than a hundred years of history through ancient photographs

Published - February 15, 2018 12:29 am IST

It’s clichéd, but an image is worth more than a thousand words. It’s perhaps most true in a historical context where visual representation breaks the monotony of extensive text. Collector Paul Abraham attempts to do just that and condense 150 years of our country’s rich past using photographs in the ongoing show Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits.

The showcase is a portion of Abraham’s large collection called Sarmaya , that serves as a repository of art, artefacts, and living traditions from the Indian Subcontinent. Launched in 2015, in memory of his late wife Tina, Sarmaya is broadly divided into numismatics, photography, folk and tribal art, engravings/etchings, cartography, rare books, and modern and contemporary art. “The 19th century photography collection is the most recent and started with a search for a visual narrative of the Revolt of 1857,” writes Abraham in his introductory note.

A visual feast

While on a visit to London six years ago, the collector was approached by a dealer who presented him with a portfolio of Felice Beato’s poignant imagery of the Revolt. There began Abraham’s exploration of the socio-historical past of India, one that highlights the perspective of the photographer and the agenda of those who commissioned the documentation. Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits has been curated by Madhavan Pillai, and designed by conservation architect, Abha Narain Lambah. It begins with the Revolt of 1857, and traverses well into the turn of the 20th century, accommodating Beato’s documentary-styled images of the aftermath of 1857 incident and Samuel Bourne’s serene and quiet stills of the Himalayan landscapes. It also features architectural photography by both British and Indian photographers highlighting monuments like the Soobramaniar temple in Tanjore, and heritage sites such as the Naulakha temple complex in Gumli.

“While going through these photographs, the first word that came to my mind was ‘portrait’,” explains Pillai. “Whether it’s a place, person, or scene, if it holds an emotion, it’s a portrait.” He elucidates how the images have a deep-rooted meaning that transcends what is visible in the their frames. It’s evident in the techniques eomplyed and the stories they inspire. The prints in the other sections of the exhibition serve as an ethnographical study, visible in the effects of ancient but long-lasting photographic methods such as albumen printing, wet-plate collodion printing, and even touching-up photographs with paint. The collection pieces together a physicality of the past; documenting occupations, tribal lifestyles, religious gurus, and of course the royals who were known to commission painted photographs. On display are also six photographic albums and an interactive installation of ‘carte-de-visite’, used as visiting cards in 1854. Using wet collodion negatives, multiple copies were made of people’s portraits, to distribute during meetings and royal engagements.

Making a photograph

The show is not so much about the photographs themselves, but about the details that exist in their making, evocative of the period they were created in. Take for instance, the panoramic photograph of Bala Hissar in Kabul, made by John Burke in 1879. Its creation involved making several contiguous exposures of a scene and then joining the resulting prints together. “To have created a panorama-styled albumen print with such precision using analogue equipment, shows a sheer mastery over the form,” says an excited Pillai. Travelling with a team of 30-40 people — considering the weather and temperature — getting a single photograph a day was most fortunate.

Then there are the images of the Marwaree and Kurrumba tribals made by John P. Nicholas in in 1865 who lugged heavy equipment and chemicals into the interiors of the Indian jungles. Each photograph demanded making a wet-plate collodion negative on the spot, and then ensuring that the subjects didn’t move during the long-exposure shot. “It’s also baffling to imagine how a British photographer instructed tribals who had their own local dialect,” says Abraham. As for Beato, his photographs narrate a tale of subjugation and destruction in a post-Colonial world. His 11 albumen silver prints are part of a series of chronicling Lucknow. Pillai writes about how Beato produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of corpses. “It is believed, for at least one of his photographs taken at the palace of Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow, he had the skeletal remains of Indian rebels rearranged to heighten dramatic impact.”

The English way

Most photographers were commissioned by The East India Company to record political and social issues, and officially record architecture and archaeological monuments. But the medium also became a way to showcase their power. As Pillai writes in his curatorial note, “A glorified and exotic picture of India was one of the most potent ways to recruit young Britons to initiate business in a continent which they were otherwise reluctant to visit.” The curator strongly believes that photography was used to colonise India and nothing beyond that. He also imagines that the show is a study on why the British came here, rather than what happened when they arrived.

Acquiring and putting together the collections has been a mammoth task. One dealer in London had Abraham in a deadlock so the collector resorted to emotion get the archive. “I remember telling him that nobody’s emotional connect to them would be stronger than in their own country.” There’s a sense of discipline involved with what Abraham considers important, deciding to acquire some and let go of others. Especially since he strives to take the art out of the gallery and into the streets. “I don’t want to be bogged down by a physical home,” he says. For Pillai, the biggest challenge was putting together a past that had gaping holes. “Beato made 202 photographs, and the archive has only 105 of those images. We were constricted,” he says.

The digital age has significantly bridged the distance between photographer and photograph. “Imagine, Samuel Bourne made approximately 2,200 in his lifetime, when a single person can make 5,000 photographs in a month,” says Pillai who is more partial to age-old techniques and thinks that we’re headed towards a digital dark age. Some might argue that it’s an unwillingness to move with the times, but peering at a hand-made photograph has a unparalleled charm of its own. Especially one that holds historical representation, and is history itself.

Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits is ongoing at Pundole’s, Ballard Estate till February 24.

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