Traces Of India: Architectural views from 19th – 20th century

At a time when popular interest in the Company School of art had begun to dwindle, the invention of photography in Europe, and its almost immediate introduction in India around 1840, nudged the camera into a propitious position. India witnessed the inception of many photographic societies and studios in the cities from the 1840s until the beginning of the 20th century. This further led to the development of communities that organised events and exhibitions, which helped in familiarising amateur photographers and individuals from other professions with the theory and practise of photography.

The avidity of the colonial powers to document the historical monuments, traditional costumes, ceremonial processions, and the varied landscape of Princely India among other subjects, and the Indian Rebellion of 1857, attracted many Europeans to capture India within a frame – Captain Linnaeus Tripe, Dr. William Henry Pigou, Colonel Thomas Biggs, Dr. John Murray, Samuel Bourne, Felix Beato, William Johnson, and others – many of whom were assigned by the East India Company. Apart from serving the purpose of cataloguing the colonial acquisitions – much like Company School paintings – these exotic images were sent back to England as souvenirs from a strange and distant land. Some native rulers took up photography as a hobby, while a few of their subjects came to see it as a lucrative profession – like Ganapatrao Kale, Hurrychind Chintamon, and others – the most renowned of whom, Lala Deen Dayal, was granted the Royal Warrant to become the official photographer of the Queen. Inspired by each other, and encouraged by the patronage of the British Raj, many photographers – local as well as European – set up studios all over the country.

One of the major challenges that existed at the time was the fact that India lacked a proper record of its history prior to the 13th century. In a vast country, teeming with “so many distinct nationalities, each retaining its old faith and its old feelings, and impressing these on its art” (1), the need for a society dedicated to the study and conservation of Indian monuments, and to carry out archaeological excavations, led to the formation of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham, a protégé of James Prinsep of the Asiatic Society. Presently, it is the primary organization for the research and protection of the cultural heritage of the nation.

When photography and all its apparatus was still in its nascent stage, Lala Deen Dayal contrived his own methods, and succeeded in fixing the captured image onto a given surface. Samuel Bourne travelled for months at a stretch across mountains and valleys, with an entourage of about 30 men carrying his cameras and boxes of chemicals, to shoot the source of the Ganges. Not too well-versed with indigenous names, Henry Cousens went from Roho to Ranpur in Gujarat, with the mistaken expectation of chancing upon a “very fine old temple” (2), only to discover what he was looking for was located in Ranakpur. He proceeded further west to Bhilri in search of another temple, “but found that the temple that existed [t]here had not only been razed to the ground, but its foundations had even been dug out, and the whole of the material carted away to be converted into lime” (3). The Archaeological Survey of India faced its own share of setbacks due to a shortage of funds. Despite the limitations, their contribution towards archiving India has provided us with an invaluable reservoir of our own history today.

The photographers / studios / societies known to us exhibited here, are the Archaeological Survey of India, B. Dorab (Agra), Bourne & Shepherd, Colin Murray (for Bourne & Shepherd), Henry Cousens, J C Harle, Jadu Kissen’s Arch Photo-Works of India (Delhi & Simla), Lala Deen Dayal, M Sain (for Burlington Studios, Darjeeling), Philip Stanley Rawson, Raina & Co. Photographers (Agra), Samuel Bourne, Shepherd & Robertson, and Dr. William Henry Pigou.

Curated by Priyanka Tagore at the India Art Fair 2018.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.