The 19th-century photographic studio brought about what the art historian, Partha Mitter, has called “great transformations of visual culture that broke away from earlier pictorial conventions, not least Mughal pictorial conventions”. Emergent pictorial traditions, he argues, were linked to the modernizing process of India to which “Victorian illusionist painting”, processes of mechanical reproduction and finally, the camera, contributed. That the Mughal imprint remained integral to early photography is clear in the compositions of Indian photographers, whether in Calcutta, Madras or Bombay.
By 1840, photographic studios had started in Bombay, and according to the social anthropologist, Christopher Pinney, who has so deftly brought into focus the photograph’s wider social role, in the same year, Bombay Times was commenting on the daguerreotype. In The Artful Pose — Early Studio Photography in Mumbai, c. 1855-1940, Rahaab Allana, the curator of the Alkazi Collection of Photography, draws attention to early institutional interest in photography: in 1855, John Harkness, the principal of Elphinstone College felt that students who had “a taste for this useful art” could benefit from exposure to a photographer and his equipment. There were a number of applicants for the post, including Narayan Daji, a Bombay-based medical doctor. The department of photography, however, did not last long. As early as 1857, Daji, one of the first known commercial Indian photographers, took a series of what became know as ethnographic photographs; his images predated the massive eight-volume The People of India project that showcased “the various divisions of the Asian family”. The project was initiated by the viceroy, Charles Canning, and though it involved a few Indians, Daji was not among them.
Harkness’s perhaps unwitting comment that photography was a useful art delineated in some ways the subtle nuances — if not tensions — in its early practice. By the last decades of the 19th century, the Bombay photographic arena, so to speak, became a significant venue for a display of talents that emphasized realism as well as the artistic uses of the medium. True representation seemed to have been the dominant philosophy of the early photographers; after all, they were displacing portrait painters and visualizers. In 1889, Sorabji Jehangir, the chief magistrate of Baroda, put together Representative Men Of India — “A collection of memoirs, with portraits, of Indian princes, nobles, statesmen, philanthropists, officials, and eminent citizens”. The volume of portraits — most were those of the Bombay gentry, including Dadabhai Naoroji — was dedicated to the empress of India. The photographs were attributed to Vincent Brooke Day and Son, London and George Birdwood, who wrote the introduction, said these would enable English newspaper readers to put faces to the names that they read about or had heard of. A perceptive recognition of the growing role of the camera.
By this time, apart from Bourne and Shepherd and Raja Deen Dayal’s studios, Bombay saw considerable investment as well as involvement in photography by Indians. Studios such as those of S. Hormusji, Shapoor N. Bhedwar, Bombay Photo Company and EOS Photographic Company were increasingly popular. In no time, Shapoor Bhedwar became a much sought after photographer. At the time when he worked, the interface between art and the new medium was still being worked out; Bhedwar was able to combine fine aspects of both. A resident of Bombay’s fashionable Cumballa Hill, Bhedwar went to London to study photography and was the only Indian to exhibit several images at the annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1891. In an interesting discussion of the photographer’s work, Allana has pointed out that Bhedwar emboldened a tradition in which studios were publicized as art ateliers; props of statuary, elaborate painted backdrops and a range of period costumes and appropriate accoutrement helped establish this status. Allana bases his analysis on an unusual Bhedwar album entitled Art Studies that has 31 highly stylized photographs; the patron of this fascinating volume was Sohrab Palamkote, a poet in Gujarati and a connoisseur of art. Allana feels that it might be one of “the first Indo-European theatrical stylizations in photography”. Very carefully crafted, the posed, if not fanciful, portraits are followed by “a staged performance piece in photographic form”.
Such representations were helped by Bhedwar’s training in pictorialism where lyricism, ambience and suitable props transformed photography into an art form, creating images rather than merely recording them. In his “The Renunciation Series”, Bhedwar tells the story of Raj, a yogi, who “captures the imagination” and fills the “vapid empty lives” of a “house of very attractive and idle women” (see photograph). Allana feels that the series could have been based on an actual performance at a well-known theatre hall such as the Elphinstone or Ripon. Even if this were the case, each frame is so carefully composed that clearly there was a deep synergy between the actor or actors and the photographer, each acutely aware of the other’s role in this complex rendering of a life of fantasy. In the final image, both men and women follow the yogi, giving up their material world. The photographs in this series are not only a visual treat but they also stimulate a certain curiosity about the 19th-century Bombay stage represented here; many of the actors in this series are clearly women — an interesting divergence in a profession where, as in the vibrant Parsi theatre, all parts were usually played by men. It is more than possible that as this particular play had Indians as well as European actors, presenting women on stage would not have been an issue.
In no time, Daji’s studio became one among many started by enterprising Indians. In his exploration of the ‘studio districts’ of Bombay/Mumbai, Allana found that there was a congruence between these and the growth of the indigenous middle class. Several were located in the Fort area or on Kalbadevi Road. As with cabinet-size prints, elaborate versos were very popular; these became free advertising space for studios allowing for considerable artistic licence. Plump cherubs, winsome damsels, intertwined foliage and the odd monument were usual fare — with, of course, pride of place given to the studio’s USP: a 1880s-1890s verso from Bourne and Shepherd assured those interested that not only would copies be made available “any time”, but also that these could be “enlarged to order and painted in oil or water color [sic]”. A few decades later, it was in this vibrant commercial atmosphere that Narayan Vinayak Virkar set up his studio on Girgaum Road. Like many others in the field, Virkar’s coffers were filled by ‘society’ photography; however, as the historian of Bombay, Sharada Dwivedi, has pointed out, his heart lay in the nationalist cause and he soon became among the first chroniclers of important personalities, Congress sessions and, indeed, the aftermath of Jallianwala Bagh.
This meant that Virkar had to travel long distances to Lucknow, Calcutta, Delhi, Amristar and Agra carrying heavy equipment. His focus however remained Bombay and it was unusual to have an early-20th-century political event in the city without making space for Virkar, his staff and necessary paraphernalia. For him, commitment to the cause of nationalism was the raison d’être for his photographic endeavours; Daji’s on-site work, actions shots as well as portraiture of major actors in the freedom movement had moved the Indian discourse around photography a bit further afield. The pictorialist phase was soon to die out, and though realism continued to dominate, its defining lines were necessarily ‘fuzzed’ by the appearance of documentary photography and the photojournalist. Studios had to now compete with open spaces and their staff with fast-paced mobile units, and with incipient but eager paparazzi.