Visual histories: Photography in the popular imagination By Malavika Karlekar, Oxford, Rs 795
William Bornefeld’s novel, Time and Light, is set in a dystopian future in which photography is forbidden. The prohibition that is in place in Fullerton’s fictional, post-apocalyptic world is premised on the fear that photographs have the power to bring about unforeseen changes in the way human beings imagine and perceive the world and society.
Malavika Karlekar’s Visual Histories — a compilation of 32 illuminating and lucidly written essays — chronicles the changes in visual discourse that coincided with the inception of photography in imperial and independent India, leading the elite and ordinary people to look anew at their life, times and spaces. Karlekar’s book thus reiterates photography’s ability to transform society by altering visual culture and discourse, the very attribute that led to the ban on images in Fullerton.
In her introduction, Karlekar — a regular columnist for The Telegraph — refers to the argument of the art historian, Partha Mitter, that the separation of India’s visual discourse from the pictorial style of representation of the Mughals was abetted by three factors — the emergence of Victorian academic paintings, the technology of mechanical reproduction and, finally, the invention of photography. Among these, it is the camera and its appurtenances — the studio, photographers and their clientele — that remain central to Karlekar’s interest. In colonial India, the studio was not merely a site of production. It was also a complex space that gave life to desire and fantasy (“The Photograph and its Accoutrements”). Elaborate backdrops and props were selected after a protracted, but equal, dialogue between the photographer and his subject. What was significant about the studio as a space was not just its democratic character. The myriad backdrops and settings — a castle in Scotland, for instance— often served as vehicles of imaginary transportation for the subjects who were unlikely to travel great distances in the course of a lifetime.
Another important contribution of colonial photography was its ability to bend rules of segregation related to class and gender. The studio’s popularity among the European gentry resulted in the visual space being shared, gradually, by the sahib — tea-planters, civil servants, lawyers and priests — with the memsahib. Soon, the Indian elite started emulating the Europeans in this respect. (Karlekar cites the photograph of the Parsi couple with contrasting expressions in “Reading the Pose” as an example). This was a significant departure because public space and, hence, visibility remained bound by oppressive rules that marked political and social engagement among the different strata. The history of photography in India is also a register of the gradual democratization of visual space. Soon, not just women but marginalized communities — ayahs and khitmatgars — would be accommodated in the frame.
But early photography’s function was not only of creating fantasy or diluting rigid norms. It was an important cog in the wheel of colonial surveillance since it served as the mischievous eyes of the Empire. Since the Empire’s engagement with its colony was executed through the visual medium, photography played a critical role in the European fascination, and revulsion, for Otherness. In “‘Fixing’ the Subject”, Karlekar cites Lord Canning’s diktat to provincial administrators to collect “photographic likenesses of characteristic specimens of the more remarkable tribes of India” that led to the production of over 100,000 prints. These vignettes also reveal how the colonial gaze encountered resistance on the part of its subjects. The manner in which a young girl from Madras stares back at the camera — her expression is at once submissive and playful — in a pre-1905 postcard, reproduced above, depicts photography as a medium characterized by complicity and resistance.
Another kind of complicity, one between enterprising European and Indian photographers, defied the boundaries of race and proved to be fortuitous for academic research. The essay, “The Empire and an Aficionado”, talks about one such collaboration between colonial photographers and Rajendralal Mitra, an authority on diverse art forms. This led to flawless interpretations of visual records of ancient sculptures.
Karlekar’s book illuminates not just intriguing rituals — the ceremony that preceded the journey to the studio, for instance — but also the lives and times of individuals who played pivotal roles in the history of photography in India. Karlekar draws from a wide stretch of time to talk about the pioneering contributions of Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne as well as Margaret Bourke-White, Homai Vyarawalla and the twin sisters, Debalina and Manobina Sen Roy, among others. The narrative’s inclusion of other gifted individuals as photographic subjects — Subbalakshmi, the first child widow to graduate from college, or the danseuse, Rukmini Devi — signifies the depth and fullness of Karlekar’s research.
A minor disappointment, however, remains. Karlekar acknowledges the absence of a vibrant culture of visual archiving and preservation in India, a lacuna that makes the task of a researcher formidable. But she refuses to elaborate on the theme further even though the apathy is not always institutional. Families, Karlekar writes, often stash photo albums into trunks and then forget all about them. What is it then that makes us forget our links with the past?
Old photographs, in the popular imagination, serve as testimonies of the past. But Karlekar shows that the magic of photography rests on its ability to project an unerring eye towards the future. Linnaeus Tripe’s portrait of a nervous king dwarfed by his diwan (“Glass-plate Negatives in Bullock Carts”) is a telling commentary on the wily bureaucrat emerging from the shadow of the regent. This shift in power inside the palace was in response to imminent and larger changes: the shadow of Empire engulfing the land.