The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Rajendralal Mitra took photography beyond the studio

While letters home, detailed journal and diary entries as well as enthusiastic invitations to visit India were personalized forms of bridging the gap between the colony and the home country, a proactive media chipped in to aid the Empire. For the British, relating to an alien land meant balancing the quest for similarities with the principle of difference needed to govern. And what better way than the growing newspaper and magazine industry, often vociferous supporters of Colonel Blimp. The coming of the visual tradition as well as improvements in methods of reproducing photographs added a new angle to how India was to be packaged and presented. By the middle of the 19th century, visual representation as a source of information became an important component of the colonial enterprise in India.

Though discovered in 1839, the commercial uses of photography took firm root after the Great Exhibition of Arts and Industry of 1851 held in London’s Crystal Palace. Technological inventions were popular with photographers who were increasingly there to record visuals of waterworks, gasworks, the locomotive and so on. The official use of the photograph and its commercialization grew almost simultaneously. Apart from its role in recording, surveillance and control, the camera was extensively used by the rulers to document and analyse physiognomic aspects of the native population and the country’s architectural and natural wealth. The repository, to which men like Linnaeus Tripe contributed, was part of official documentation, not accessible to the public. At the same time, the discourse of Empire required its public affirmation back home. This role was amply filled by intrepid compradors like Samuel Bourne, John Burke, William Baker and their photographic establishments.

While in the urban areas, commercial studios honed their skills with the genre of the family portrait, a small band of photographic adventurers re-created notions of the picturesque through landscapes and photographs of the Himalaya, its peaks, lakes and cottages built to evoke memories of home with names such as Rose Villa, Gleneagles and so on. Soon, the Other crept into the drawing rooms of many back home, furnishing talking points for old India hands as well as for those who could hardly control the shivers-down-the-spine syndrome as they gazed at an image of a mighty Sikh or a leaping tiger.

Initially, it was the lithograph — often fancifully embellished — that captured the imagination. The first man in Britain to zero in on the possibilities of using illustrations together with news was a Nottingham newsagent, Herbert Ingram, who moved to London in 1842 and began publishing The Illustrated London News, a weekly which had 16 pages of letterpress and 32 woodcuts. Often woodcuts or lithographs carried the credit line, “from a daguerreotype”. It was to take another twenty-odd years for the photograph to appear in either a newspaper or a magazine. This Street Scene in Calcutta (picture) — a view down Takshal Street (Mint Street) towards Esplanade is a wood engraving from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion of 1851. To the left is the dome of Government House and in the middle, the spire of New Church. For those who knew Calcutta, the gracious Palladian façades acted as mnemonic aid; for those who did not, it showed that the colony was not solely jungle — and even if it were, the civilizing influence of Christianity was never far away.

In India, it required the prescience of antiquarian Rajendralal Mitra to understand the increasing value of the visual. His creative imagination and assiduously cultivated technical skill resulted in a news magazine with a strong visual component. In 1851, Bibidhartha Samgraha, an illustrated monthly magazine with a focus on the popularization of science began. Interspersed with reproductions of lithographs and paintings, the magazine was perhaps among the first illustrated publications in this genre. Nor was literature overlooked, and novels and their critiques were also serialized. Rabindranath Tagore was an early fan of Rajendralal’s effort, devouring his brother’s bound volume of several issues. He writes in Reminiscences (Jibansmriti) that he read and re-read these “over and over again” and “many a holiday noontide” was spent with “me stretched on my back on my bed, that square volume on my breast, reading about the Narwhal whale, or the curiosities of justice as administered by the Kazis of old, or the romantic story of Krishna-kumari”. Writing in the early years of the 20th century — several years after Bibidhartha Samgraha had been closed down and Rajendralal Mitra had died — Tagore lamented the absence of “unpretentious miscellanies which the ordinary person can read in comfort”.

And miscellanies they were — a typical table of contents read: “Camphor”, “Life of Columbus”, “On the importance of the study of history”, “Female Soldiers of the King of Siam” and so on. Apart from his original research, Rajendral was a voracious reader and his encyclopaedic mind enabled him to cull out and reproduce in translation interesting articles and essays based on his wide and varied reading. The reader could be assured of information and analysis on a wide range of subjects in a few pages — a significant development for an increasingly literate and aware population, eager for new knowledge of the world beyond. Obviously, copyright was not an issue in those early days of the published word.

Born in 1822, the young Rajendralal grew up in a cultured and literary environment as his father was a Persian and Sanskrit scholar. His interest in Indology took him in 1846 to the Asiatic Society, where he was appointed assistant secretary and librarian. He worked there till 1856 and was the first Indian to join the tradition of scholarly work at the Society. While his duties as an official were diverse, Rajendralal wasted little time in acquiring the methodological skills required for antiquarian research, and published regularly in the Society’s journal. The visual was never far from his consciousness, and he worked hard to publish “physical charts” to accompany his geography primer, Prakrita Bhugol, and in 1871, he published a series of district maps of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Between 1870 and 1888, he discovered many valuable manuscripts. Information about them was published in nine volumes of Notices of Sanskrit Manuscripts that used a process of systematic cataloguing, the first of its kind for old manuscripts. In his archaeological research Rajendralal introduced the visual element with great skill and dexterity. He built upon the work of Captains M. Kittoe, Joseph Cunningham and his younger brother, Alexander, both army engineers deeply interested in archaeological excavations and preservation and others.

It was however the politics of photography that involved him soon after the establishment of the Photographic Society of Bengal in 1856, of which he was a founding member. He was among the handful of Indians to join this predominantly European group of professional photographers, interested amateurs and army officers and, in 1857, he became its treasurer. Within months of its establishment and the starting of its journal, Rajendralal had written five articles in the first three issues, including translations of French essays from Le Pays and La Lumiere.

Rajendralal’s forthright views on the Ilbert Bill and the indigo planters, whom he referred to derisively as the “sweepings of England” soon affected his functioning within the British-dominated society. There were rumours of financial impropriety, plagiarism and so on. Finally, he was expelled in 1857; in no time, Rajendralal had set up a rival society. The palpably racist overtones of the issue were soon reflected in the Indian and British press — though in a matter of only a few years, the Photographic Society of Bengal requested him to re-join the flock. This a somewhat triumphant Rajendralal did and continued his role of advisor on interpretation and understanding of photographs. While we do not know whether Rajendralal took any of the photographs that substantiated his work, he certainly took great care in selecting and arranging those that were to accompany his writings, often being in personal touch with the photographers. What we do know, however, is that he was among the early Indians who foresaw a great future for the photograph in scientific and other research, one that went well beyond the fantasia and mimicry of the photo studio’s contrived backdrops and poses for its clients.

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