The small Indian Treasures exhibition on until the 7th October at the gettyimages gallery on Eastcastle Street (near Oxford Circus tube station) in London, is an amazing opportunity to see photographs of “India” dating from the mid-19th century. It has been well curated, and represents a collection of very diverse photographs, drawn mainly from a European gaze on “British India”. However, the collection also includes photographs from Indian photographers, and illustrates seven themes: photographs by Samuel Bourne between 1863 and 1870; sun pictures from the 19tb century, illustrating both landscapes and people; methodologies, including four tinted photocrom prints; images by the photojournalist Felice Beato; studio portraiture; Princes of India; and the work of the London Stereoscope Company.
The exhibition raises so many fascinating questions, especially at a time when we “celebrate” 70 years of the independence of India and Pakistan, and remember the many atrocities that accompanied the birth of these two countries. In particular, it highlights the way in which imagery was used to reinforce cultural stereotypes, and also the use of photography in the 19th century to capture what are seen as particular racial types.
I was particularly struck by comparisons between the countries in the 19th century and how they are seen today:
- Most photographs displayed were of India, rather than Pakistan, although mosques in Lucknow and Delhi were indeed depicted alongside temples from Tamil Nadu;
- The pictures generally depict a very clean and tidy India, with relatively smart new buildings and largely empty streets, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the modern sub-continent;
- The mountain scenes from the Himalayas, which are a wonderful resource for learning more about environmental change, and especially glacial retreat;
- Jantar Mantar (described as the Old Observatory) near Delhi is shown apparently in an almost empty landscape, far removed from the urban landscape that surrounds it today;
- The shell marks on the walls of the Shahi Mosque at Qudsia Bagh serve as a reminder of the violence and atrocities of the war known by the British as the “Indian Mutiny”; and
- It is a very male view – especially of the haunted faces of teh seemingly aloof and distant India princes; women appear mainly as nautch girls, although there is also a fascinating image of women at a bathing ghat on the Ganges near Benares.
Above all, I was left with huge admiration of the work of photographers from a century and a half ago, who dragged their cameras and equipment across the continent to “capture” these haunting memories of India’s treasures. This is an exhibition to be savoured and enjoyed. Not only are the images stunningly evocative, but they also force us to rethink our understandings of the British Raj.