The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The idiosyncrasies of attempting a visual family history

From the 1840s onwards, the interface with the camera was marked by the ruling elite in various colonies patronizing a growing number of photographic studios. A couple of decades later, the indigenous urban upper and middle classes were attracted to the new technique of visual reproduction: the much cheaper option was soon to put portrait painters out of business. By the middle of the 19th century, as the photographic visual grew in popularity, many artists who had trained for years in the techniques of portrait painting found their livelihood threatened. A few tried their hand at painting photographs that of course were in monochrome. The production of photographs also underwent rapid change, with the fragile daguerreotype being replaced by the more easily reproducible glass plate negative. In 1854, as the carte-de-visite photograph ' 4' x 2' in size, the same as visiting cards of the times ' was patented by Frenchman Andre-Adophe-Eugene Disderi, a veritable 'cardomania' set in. These cards were enthusiastically received by consumerist populations in the West, and soon enough, in the colonies. More formal representations, however, depended on the larger 6.5' x 4.25' cabinet-size format that was introduced in 1866.

Like the system of English education, new instruments of governance, railways, postal and transport networks, the photograph was brought to this country by the British for a variety of reasons, surveillance being a significant one. In time, as photography's commercial appeal was realized, studios burgeoned. It was in the three presidencies that studios were first established, followed quickly by the princely states and cities like Hyderabad and Lucknow. Frequently, the need to be photographed coincided with wide-ranging changes in means of livelihood, family structure and place of residence. Within a generation, caste-based village-oriented occupations that were often focussed around land and its use gave way to the urban salaried professional ' the teacher, lawyer, clerk.

Apart from changes in intra-familial relationships, the new way of life brought with it material changes in sartorial styles, meal times, modes of transportation and so on. It was not only the first generation professional who made his way to photographic studios but also the native princes and the landed elite. A perusal of early studio photographs from different parts of India of men who were the first clients provides a visual history of dress styles. The more influential and affluent would hire the photographer and his entourage to come home to take photographs. Dress codes reflected occupational status ' the gold-embroidered angarkha (long sleeved full-skirted tunic) or kurta (men's loose stitched upper garment) tied with a patka (sash) with kiran (gold or sliver fringes), matching pyjamas (loose stitched lower garment) and a choga (crossover robe) on top with a jamavaar, the finely embroidered Kashmiri shawl, a hallmark of the elite of the times, draped around the shoulders was usual for the princes and the landed gentry in north and eastern India. Some sported a sword in a jewel-encrusted scabbard, long pearl necklaces with enamel pendants and headgear embellished by a sarpech (plume). Professionals, on the other hand, had started wearing Western dress ' in fact, early photographs of leading barristers, civil servants and even university teachers portray them in the ditto suit that had emerged in Europe where the jacket matched the trousers. In formal group photographs of British and Indian civil servants for instance, sartorial uniformity was the norm as a strict observance of a Western dress code was essential.

Photographs of teachers, lawyers and doctors often showed them wearing a jacket or a buttoned-up coat with a Peter Pan-like collar or shirt collar over a dhoti or pyjamas. In Bengal, the Brahmo Samaj under Debendranath Tagore introduced the dhuti (dhoti), panjabi (kurta) and chador (shawl) as the official dress of men. Paintings and photographs of Rammohan Roy usually portray him in a choga with a simple shawl. Despite their interest and familiarity with Western learning, Christian tenets and Unitarianism, by sticking to indigenous dress and being portrayed in these, Brahmos were making an important statement on identity and belonging.

In Bengal, a kurta, shawl and even coat was commonly worn where a generation ago, men, and for that matter women, wore little to cover the upper half of their bodies. Dress reform and the introduction of elaborate sari-blouses were essential before women could be photographed. On the other hand, in neighbouring Tripura, a striking portrait of Anangamohini Debi, daughter of the photographic aficionado, Maharaja Birchandra, shows her heavily bejeweled though not wearing a blouse; irrespective of caste and class, this was also the custom in Travancore and Cochin.

These regional variations in dress apart, often the pose, composition and even dress of painted or photographic portra- iture followed in fairly minute detail that of Western prototypes. Heavy tomes, either open or with the sitter's hand on it, were usual in the case of professional men ' and even some women, who however were hardly literate. In a world where the acquisition of modern learning from printed books was a sign of progressive and enlightened status, the inclusion of books was surely not accidental. In fact, in several portraits, of men in particular, it is as though the artist/photographer focused on them at a moment when they were engrossed in either reading or writing.

The role of the photographic establishment and of the complicit/manipulative specialist in aiming at delivering a pleasing image of the new professional, young married couple, wife-as-helpmeet and perhaps a child grew with expanding opportunities. By the late 1870s, it was not unusual for the married couple to be photographed, often reflecting a more compact domestic arrangement, a shift from the joint family norm. Not unusually, the photographic studio became the venue where different generations of men and women gathered together or, in the case of the conjugal couple, shared for the first time the same space in public. Whether the man stood or sat, his facial expression, position of hands and legs reflected a certain ease ' or unease ' with the act of being photographed with his wife. Again, if he were seated on the arm of his wife's chair, leaning just that lightly against her shoulder, his body language spoke of a certain familiarity absent if he posed in a stiff, upright position.

This photograph (picture), taken in the 1880s of an elite couple from the Parsi Billia family, records the wife's slight discomfiture while her husband appears relatively relaxed and self-assured. She wears what became popularly known as the Parsi-border sari with a blouse modelled on the Western gown. The saris were either originals or based on the all-over hand-embroidered garas or garos brought back by Parsi traders from China in the 1850s, soon to become popular not only among the Parsis but also among well-to-do women in other parts of India as well. Under the sari pallav is the mathubanu that loosely binds her head. The wife also wears the single earring, quite the fashion among affluent Parsis during this period. Her husband has the pheta on, a traditional headgear that is rarely seen today.

The position of the couple is particularly interesting: though both are at almost the same level, the husband appears to be seated lightly on a parapet and it is as though the touching of their bodies is almost denied by the wife's left hand that is folded backwards. That long hours of a tiring photographic session often did not succeed in the aim of portraying happy domesticity is evident from a reading of some conjugal photographs. Different poses inspire different readings, and though some might find it fanciful to read patriarchal dominance in a stiff, studio composition and gender equality where the one's grandparents share a secret joke, these are but some of the idiosyncrasies of attempting a visual family history!

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