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SILENCE AND SLOW TIME

It is not difficult to figure out why, in the language of cinema, the dead haunt the living as photographic negatives. Think of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne or Pratidwandi, where the disquieting ghostliness of negatives conjures up worlds that could be fantastical or surreally modern. In the early days of still photography, the photographic image — negative as well as positive — was associated, sometimes subliminally and often consciously, with a sort of elegiac supernaturalism, in its capacity to suggest both materiality and absence. When these images are viewed now by visually nostalgic moderns, a further layer of ghostliness is projected upon them. They become doubly ‘haunting’, as it were, and so, doubly valued.

On the top is a waxed-paper negative, from sometime between 1858 and 1862, of that monument to love, death and power, photographed by John Murray. Born in Scotland in 1809, Murray was appointed civil surgeon of Agra by the East India Company in 1848. He then worked in Agra for 20 years, in the course of which he became obsessed with photographing the Taj in its wider surroundings — painstakingly and from every possible angle. The slow rigour with which Murray made his photographs is difficult to imagine in a digital age. So, his laterally reversed negatives, with their strangely burning darkness, have the aura not only of history and of time, but also of an individual’s compulsive pursuit of beauty. It is this quality that makes these images more than just historical documents, investing them with the mystery and precision of beautiful works of art. It is a quality that also informs the work of other early photographers working in India — Samuel Bourne, Alexander Greenlaw, William Johnson and Lala Deen Dayal, and many whose names are now lost. In them, landscapes, cityscapes or ethnograhic groups and portraits transcend colonial record-keeping, Orientalism and the picturesque — though steeped in all these — to take on something more inscrutable, timeless and still. They demand from the viewer, not only a historian’s or an archivist’s eye, but a capacity for contemplation and feeling as well.

Both the photographs above — on the right is an albumen print of Parsi gymnasts by an unknown photographer, from 1860-1890 — are from UNVEILING INDIA: THE EARLY LENSMAN, 1850-1910 (Mapin, Rs 1,950) by Rahaab Allana and Davy Depelchin. It is the catalogue of an exhibition of photographs from the invaluable Alkazi Collection, currently on view at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium as part of the europalia.india festival. Apart from good reproductions of 91 photographs, it has essays by both Allana and Depelchin, who have jointly curated the exhibition.