Exhibition overview

Nathaniel Gaskell, Exhibition Curator

The history of photography in India is a mix of distinct yet interconnected trajectories. Shortly after its invention in Europe in the 1840s, the camera arrived in the subcontinent and was used, primarily, as a tool of administration and control. Colonial India was Britain’s largest colony and photography allowed the British Raj to archive and organise India according to colonialist logic. Over the course of the next few decades, and at an unprecedented scale, India – its landscapes, people, traditions and archeological history – was catalogued for the colonial eye and transformed into a governable ‘object.’

 

After gaining independence in 1947, India’s evolving political and economic climate attracted documentary photographers, whose work was increasingly featured in both domestic and Western media. While this style of representation often found more egalitarian ways of representing the country’s rich cultural heritage alongside its modernising ambitions, it also frequently dealt in the language of orientalist cliché, especially in the hands of foreign photographers. Around the turn of the twenty-first century, photography in India developed a more directly critical attitude towards earlier photographic legacies. Adopting a more conceptual approach, contemporary photographers saw the image as not just a representation but also a site of commentary.

 

Over the century-and-a-half since it reached India, photography has lived many lives, yet its colonial origins still influence its commercial and artistic trajectories. Considering this historical arc across three broad periods – the colonial, postcolonial, and contemporary – allows us to see photography in India as not just a product of political, cultural and material transformations but also as a space where centuries-old biases are reflected, countered and contested.

 

One of the many lives that photography has lived in India has played out in the form of the small-town photo studio, such as Suresh Punjabi’s Nagda Studio, which is the focus of the final space in this exhibition. Such studios recorded everyday life outside the main centres of the country, and contest the dominant history of photography in India.

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Image: William JOHNSON

Chambhars  1852–55

from the album The Oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay

albumen print

34.0 x 28.2 cm

courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)

1850s–1947
Photography in the colonial era

 

When the camera was brought to India in the 1840s, most photographers were colonial civil servants and travellers – with a few notable exceptions – some of whom established studios in major British Indian presidency towns such as Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata) and Madras (now Chennai). During this time, photography was a part of both administrative duty as well as a burgeoning archeological and anthropological interest in the subcontinent.

 

Despite the logistical difficulties posed by travelling with photographic equipment, many of the landscape and architectural photographs from this period are stunningly composed and clear indicators of the role the photographic image played in replacing the sketchbook. In the case of these travel images, the photographers were almost exclusively European men who were assisted by a cadre of Indian porters. The British photographer and studio owner Samuel Bourne, for instance, famously travelled with over forty porters and a ‘mobile’ darkroom in the form of a horse-drawn carriage in which photographic equipment and chemicals were stored.

 

When it came to photographing people, portraits from this time typically demonstrated clear roots in Western painting traditions and were commissioned by the colonial elite, European travellers and local royalty. In other cases, photographers turned their cameras toward the country’s indigenous communities, resulting in images that exemplify the colonialist anthropological gaze that was typical of the time. Images such as these comprised the first Indian ethnographic album, The Oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay.

 

The photographs exhibited in this section represent a century-long arc for the medium – from the royal and ethnographic portraits and architectural views of the second half of the nineteenth century to the more stylised and ‘painted’ portraits that came from the commercial growth of photography studios in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Image: UNKNOWN

Untitled [A photograph of what is possibly Panchganga Ghat in Benaras]  c. 1860–80

albumen print

16.0 x 10.0 cm

courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)

1947–1990
Photography after independence

 

India’s independence from colonial rule in 1947 ushered in a series of vast and consequential changes. Britain’s chaotic and disorganised exit from India pushed the country into a massive refugee crisis in the form of the Indian Partition; domestic tensions led to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi the next year; and the then-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru enforced India’s first constitution shortly thereafter, setting the country on a path of rapid but highly regulated industrialisation. Many photographers made images that sought to represent this period of immense flux, often adopting a documentary style which became increasingly common throughout the rest of the century, especially due to the increased portability of photographic equipment.

 

These images express a desire to not just represent the real but also construct it to some degree. Photographers – foreign and domestic – who considered themselves both artists and archivists enacted a selective approach toward what and who they photographed and how they composed their images. Invariably, like with their colonial-era predecessors, they often became complicit in rehearsing orientalist notions of India for Western audiences. While there remains much to admire about the technical beauty of these images, they have often been disassociated from the material and cultural context of their subjects, which risks positioning India as the object of a familiar set of fantasies.

 

The existence of these issues, however, does not mean that images from this period were unidimensional. At the same time, a number of photographers, and modern artists using photography, were employing the camera to explore new ways of representing tradition, inequity and modernity in a changing country. Covering the half-century from India’s independence to its economic liberalisation in the early 1990s, this section represents a series of approaches to postcolonial photography.

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Image: Mitter BEDI

Hindustan lever pipeline to success  1961

gelatin silver print

100.0 x 75.0 cm

courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)

1990–2021
Contemporary photography

 

As India’s economy opened up to global markets and foreign investment in the 1990s, the country experienced its most significant historical shift since independence. During this period, which extends into the present day, photographers and artists – many who live abroad and engaged with international institutions – have become increasingly interested in challenging the ways India has been represented and misrepresented in the past. Many of these photographers’ own diasporic and transnational backgrounds have pushed them to question the rigidity of ideas such as nationhood and cultural belonging and whether they are relevant within the twenty-first century art world and its globalised context.

 

Such questions have resulted in work that has tackled subjects of Western hegemony, postcolonialism, appropriation, identity politics and the ethics of representation, confronting the inequities of colonial power while simultaneously imagining new and independent photographic futures for the country. For instance, in the conceptual photography project titled Native women of South India (manners and customs) (2000–04) – some images from which are featured in this section – Indian artist Pushpamala N collaborated with Scottish-born and Bengaluru-based photographer Claire Arni to deconstruct and ridicule the aesthetic of colonial ethnography. In their very premises, such projects resituate India from its position as a fixed object of representation to a wider field of interpretations open to critique and play. The contemporary photographs featured in this section represent this approach.
 

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Image: Pushpamala N with Clare ARNI

Returning from the tank 1  2000–04

from the series Native women of South India (manners and customs)

sepia-toned gelatin silver print

13.1 x 8.8 cm

courtesy of the artists and the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)

Suresh Punjabi: studio of dreams

 

Across the broad history of photography in India, the photo studio has been a space of significant experimentation and creativity. In the 1970s and 80s, during industrial growth of small and mid-sized-town India and the commercial growth of the Hindi film industry, studios became the center of a dispersed and wide-ranging image economy. During this period, Suresh Punjabi – the photographer and owner of Suhag Studio in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh – made portraits for a broad set of purposes, from wedding and family albums to passport photos to personal souvenirs. Working at the time in a small 10 x 20 feet studio, Punjabi’s photographs chronicle the human drama of life in a small-town in the heart of India; a history told through faces.

 

Still a young photographer and studio-owner during the time, Punjabi had an industrious work ethic, managing every step of the image-making, developing and printing process. Although Studio Suhag provided a necessary service for the residents in and around Nagda, especially during religious festivals and auspicious wedding seasons, many also came to the studio in hopes of enacting a personal (and personalised) performance of self, inspired by the language of dreams and cinema. For these everyday fantasies, Punjabi’s camera served as both audience and co-conspirator. The photographs, and accompanying biographical short film exhibited here, demonstrate a double history within the evolution of Indian photography. These portraits are the result of a deeply personal and unique relationship between Punjabi and his clients, yet his studio is one of thousands across urban and mid-sized-town India, each with its own local artistic and commercial character, suggesting the existence of other photographic histories that extend beyond those presented in the larger exhibition. Today, as he approaches his mid-sixties, Punjabi continues to work in Nagda, in a much larger studio space and alongside his son, Pratik.
 

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Image: Suresh PUNJABI
Untitled (Two men with a transistor radio),
Suhag Studio, Nagda, Madhya Pradesh  1983
pigment ink-jet print
33.0 x 33.0 cm
courtesy of the artist and Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)