Not unexpectedly, 1857 marked a watershed in early British photography on India. The most important photographic record of the traumatic events of that year and the following was provided by a Corfiot Italian, Felice Beato — even though he arrived in India when British influence had been unquestionably established. He was born in around 1833 or 1834 on the island of Corfu, which was at that time a part of the British protectorate of the Ionian Islands. Beato’s family was originally Italian, perhaps of noble origins. Some Beato aficionados have claimed for him the status of a pioneering photojournalist, and though he clearly was not one in the contemporary understanding of the term, his imagery had an unquestionable urgency and immediacy. In fact, several were carefully composed so as to recreate massacres, sacrifices and victories. He was, very evidently, in favour with the military and political establishment as many of his photographs would have required permission. While commercial interests may have been foremost in his mind, Beato obviously had little qualms in playing along with the growing hegemonic proclivities of the land of his naturalization. Or, perhaps, he had no option, as is evident in his photographs of the Opium War, where permission to photograph was granted only after he had agreed to the careful reconstruction of sites of battle, bodies and all.
In 1855, Felice Beato and his brother-in-law, James Robertson, travelled to Balaklava, Crimea, where they took over reportage of the Crimean War from noted British photographer, Roger Fenton. This war that lasted between 1853–1856 was fought between Imperial Russia on one side and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Ottoman Empire on the other — one of a number of military campaigns in the area with a clear idea of aggrandizing territory. The fall of Sebastopol that resulted in about 60 images only confirmed the camera’s increasing role in recording imperial aspirations.
It is hardly surprising then that on hearing of the events of 1857, Felice Beato left Crimea in haste for India — but arrived in time to record only the last embers. He apparently landed in Calcutta via the Suez Canal in 1858, addressed the Photographic Society of Bengal the next month and, within a short period, headed up country, to Lucknow. According to photo-historian Sophie Gordon, who has worked on Lucknow, Beato was the first European professional photographer to be attracted to the still smouldering city. Earlier, Ahmed Ali Khan (Chota Miyan) had produced an impressive portfolio of the area that was soon to be a major focus of untold violence and massacre. Beato’s images of Lucknow are famous for their spine-chilling detail — a mutineer swinging from a gibbet, skeletons in front of a badly-damaged Secundra Bagh (or Sikandar Bagh) and the Nawab of Oudh’s (Awadh’s) abandoned boat and so on.
During this time, he produced possibly the first-ever photographic images of human remains. It is believed that for at least one of his photographs taken at the palace of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s Secundra Bagh (see image), he had skeletal remains of Indian rebels disinterred or rearranged to heighten the photograph’s dramatic impact. Though this is again controversial: some records say that while the bodies of the British were buried in a trench, those of the Indians were allowed to rot in the open. However, in his memoirs, British officer, Sir George Campbell, expressed surprise at Beato’s photograph of the remains, “When I saw them every one was being regularly buried, so I presume the dogs dug them up.” On the other hand, William Howard Russell of The Times recorded seeing many skeletons still lying around in April 1858. Anyway, the final upshot was a dramatic image of a ruined Palladian façade, stately Ionic pillars and deep archways overlain with the ‘native’ presence, both skeletal and living.
On an early winter’s day, November 16, 1857, British troops from the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment killed a reported 2,000 sepoys in and around this building. The reconstructed ruins of this once-beautiful property, named after the last Nawab of Awadh’s favourite wife, Sikandar Mahal Begum, now houses the National Botanical Research Institute of India. Memorabilia such as canon balls, their scars on the old garden wall, swords and shields, pieces of muskets and rifle dug out of the garden over the years have been preserved, chilling reminders of the chequered and bloody past of the present-day bureaucratic precincts. The small pavilion in the middle was obviously the venue of many mehfils, quickly forgotten as Indians swarmed in for safety, only to be felled by the canon fire of the better-equipped fighting force. The viewer could not be oblivious to the underlying message of Beato’s image that glorified as it sacralized. The battleground, breached walls, abandoned building scarred by canon and artillery fire, all became important symbols for a growing and almost jingoistic patriotism.
Beato, like Samuel Bourne and other photographers, used human figures in his compositions to convey a sense of scale, ambience and ‘aliveness’. In this image of a desecrated Secundra Bagh, four male figures have been strategically placed together with a horse. The horse stands with its back to the camera, while the men reflect on the desolateness of the space. The two who are seated appear to be engaged in identifying body parts, the one on the ground being supervised in his gory task by the man on the stool, while the person leaning against the wall looks into the middle distance. The syce (groom) concentrates on his charge. What would the photograph have been without the men? While it would still have sent shivers down many spines back home, would it have allowed for alternate scenarios being thought up by fervid imaginations? Scenarios that not only speculated on the presence of the men, but also made it imperative to factor in the helplessness of human beings and perhaps even a latent regret at what destruction had been wreaked; a salutary lesson perhaps.
Beato continued his ‘recreative’ mode in China, during the Second Opium War. In Of Battle and Beauty: Felice Beato’s Photographs of China, David Harris points out that Beato was allowed to photograph the Taku Forts only after he had first taken images of the dead Chinese soldiers in and around them.
At the same time, photographers were aware of the requirements of a market that valorized the picturesque, and their work reflected the dilemma of combining what the Australian historian, who has worked on two albums of Beato’s Delhi photographs, feels is “realism as record, and picturesqueness as pleasing composition”. Beato had to take cognizance of the notions surrounding the new art form: photographs had to be realistic — they were to be the middle-class option to the much more expensive genre of painting — and picturesque in order to be competitive. Thus, Beato placed pickets within pleasant environs, a tree was included rather than cut out of a frame as nature was an important element in many of his compositions. That he could not do so for the iconic image of Secundra Bagh indicates the utter bleakness of the environment. An emptiness that was hardly surprising as the site of what was one of the bloodiest encounters of those years was abandoned for quite a while.
Photographs were read as part of the story of military conquest; this photograph and several others added a vital dimension to many textual accounts to an eager — if not voyeuristic — public back home, as well as added texture to the many ‘died heroically in active service’ citations that the siege of Lucknow had resulted in. Visual representation of bodies in China — as also the skeletal remains at Secundra Bagh in Lucknow — assumed a macabre significance in the growing British involvement in the theatre of war. And the camera a most useful tool in its representation.