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.
I first visited Abu Dhabi in 1980; there was construction everywhere and part of me wished I had been there 20 years earlier! The changes since then, though, have been enormous, and it is very hard to recognise any of what I experienced then in the modern city of today. As part of my ongoing project of digitsing my slides from 30-40 years ago, I hope that the selection below captures something of the city as it was at that time: the juxtaposition of small new mosques with high-rise buildings; the contrasts between the greenness of the agricultural projects at Al Ain, and the urban concrete of Abu Dhabi city itself; the differences in wealth between local citizens and immigrant labourers who were mainly from South Asia; the belief that pumping oil could create cities, whereas pumping water from the underground aquifers could turn the desert green; the rather sleepy atmosphere that pervaded the place; the beauty and colours of the dhows on the blue, blue sea; the markets on the streets where one could buy everything from animals to all sorts of imported goods from containers; the mysteries of the suq…
Working with my dear friend and colleague, Sudhir Wanmali, in what was then rural South Bihar (now Jharkhand) in the mid-1970s was one of the most influential times of my life. It taught me so much: that rural people are universally exploited by those living in urban areas; that rural life in South Asia is incredibly hard; and that South Bihar (as it was then known) is amazingly beautiful. I very much hope that the images below show something of that inspiration, but they cannot sufficiently capture the smells and sounds of rural life in India in the 1970s.
Continuing digitizing the slides from my research and travels in India in 1976 and 1977, I share here some pictures of small towns and villages in what was then South Bihar (now Jharkhand) and West Bengal. These include pictures of the towns of Chaibasa and Chakradharpur, as well as several villages in this beautiful part of India. I remember particularly the paintings on the walls of the houses in the villages, and some of the writing on them as well, not least the slogan “Fight for malaria”! The pictures here also show the sadness of smallpox, with the solitary gravestone, and also other such stones which I was told marked village boundaries. There are also images of tile and brick making, and the sequence closes with a village school, which I had forgotten about but now makes me think of all of the other schools, particularly in Africa, that I have visited in the last 15 or so years. Other rural, agricultural scenes will follow in a future post!
Continuing my visual reflections of India in 1976 and 1977, I spent much of my time there based at the Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, in what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand. This was an amazing oasis of peace, calm and intellectual discourse, at the edge of the “steel town” of Jamshedpur. Interestingly, my photographs do not entirely capture my memories, but they do reflect the smart houses of the rich, the dominance of the Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO), the Jubilee Gardens park, the street stalls where I bought a copy of the Communist Manifesto, the vibrant somewhat frightening energy of the Muharram celebrations, the hazardous scaffolding, the peace of the nearby river, and the Gurkha guards who befriended me at the XLRI. They are still vivid in my mind, and I hope that by sharing these images from 40 years ago others may glimpse into the past of this fascinating town.
Continuing to digitize some of my old photographs, I share here pictures of Delhi in 1976. It is strange to think that it was nearer to independence in 1947 when I first visited (only 29 years), than it is now to when I first visited (40 years). So much remains the same in Delhi, but much has also changed. I note in particular the vast number of new cars – and the consequent air pollution. But it still remains an amazing city, with such fond memories. I look forward so much to my next visit.
In January 1977 I was fortunate to be able to visit Agra, and took the opportunity to visit the amazing old city of Fatehpur Sikri, which was founded in 1569 by the Emperor Akbar, and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 to 1585. It represents a wonderful amalgam of different architectural styles, but was abandoned shortly after its construction because the lake that supplied the city with water dried up, and increasing turmoil with the Rajputana areas made it insecure. I also particularly remember seeing a leper settlement just outside the city walls, but couldn’t bring myself to photograph the poverty and misery I saw there. Digitizing my slides from almost 40 years ago, I thought that others might like to see something of what I experienced there.