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A look at the early days of Indian photography
Payel Majumdar  16th Aug 2014

(Left) A tribal woman from Sri Lanka. (Right) A royal portrait from the 19th century.

or World Photography Day on 19 August, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) has organised a number of events around the city. One of these is "Drawn from Light", an exhibition of rare photographs from the subcontinent sourced from The Alkazi Foundation's private archives.

Curated by Rahaab Allana, editor of PIX magazine, the exhibition features landscape and portrait photography by established names in the 19th century, such as Dr John Murray's architectural photography around Agra (including the first photographs ever taken of the Taj Mahal), and Alexander Greenlaw's photographs of the ruins of the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Portraiture in the 19th century from Nepal, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Burma (Myanmar) occupy large panels of the gallery. The works of Felice Beato, Bourne and Shepherd, Johnston and Hoffman, Gobind Ram and Oodey Ram, Darogah Abbas Ali, Raja Deen Dayal and Shahpur Bhedwar's portraits grace the walls and travel a large range of subjects — from the kings, queens and nobles of the several princely states of India like Udaipur and Saurashtra to the nautch girls of Lucknow, tribal communities of Sri Lanka, family portraits of Nepal, and Jain merchants among others.

The iconography (from postures of the subjects to objects placed in the frame to composition) slips past perceived cultural boundaries — similarities of form and subject appearing via the conflict between the obviously Western ethos of the medium being superimposed on distinctly Eastern subjects. You have portraits of the Nepalese royal family for instance, in elaborate costumes that betray a combined Indo-Sino influence in equal parts.

The exhibition displays portraits in photographic albums, single prints, paper negatives, glass plate negatives, painted photographs and photo postcards of several sizes. The earliest photograph of this collection is a daguerreotype (a positive impression on a metal plate), which is the earliest photograph in the collection — a portrait of Marsham Havelock, nephew of the Havelock who besieged Lucknow in the Mutiny of 1857.

Rahaab aims to stress on the relevance of archiving through this exhibition, "A lot of these photographs found their way to England and the United States. India has never seen original photographs from Burma, Sri Lanka or Nepal, so in a way we tried to suggest that India's culture is tied up with South Asian culture; true because of the colonial empire as well. You're looking at the idea of a frontier and you're looking at how to cross the threshold of those boundaries, and in the 19th century you were allowed to do that, so this archiving gives you that freedom. The archive is not only a point of return; it is a point of initiation about how we can look at contemporary archiving."

The exhibition takes us through the now forgotten world of 19th century photography, with itinerant photographers who travelled in carts, not automobiles, where each photograph took minutes, not seconds. Taking even a single image would require doing everything just right — a glass plate could be washed the wrong way, the light had to be appropriate, most of the chemicals used were combustible. The prints displayed are albumin prints that use egg whites, silver gelatin prints, callotypes, salt paper prints, platinum or iron prints — all of which add a different hue to the patina of the photograph. There are old backdrops (purdahs) that studios used displayed on the walls. The exhibition even has a stand with an iPad, which visitors may use to take a photograph of themselves.

Venue: IGNCA

On till: 30 September

Timing:10 a.m. — 7 p.m.

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