Portrait of a Nation: A Nation in Portraits, on at Mumbai’s Pundole’s gallery, closely looks at how photography was practiced in 19th-century India. The exhibition features 92 images from the archival collection of Sarmaya—a not-for-profit organisation for the arts. The show transports viewers in the past, introducing them to a number of photography techniques which marked the camera’s arrival in India at a time when the political landscape of the country was constantly changing shape. So the history of photography in India is linked with Indian history of the 19th century.

At the exhibition, you come across the images of ruined buildings of Lucknow and Delhi—by-products of the 1857 mutiny—by the British-Italian photographer Felice Beato. He is considered one of the first war photographers of the world and was often accused of following unethical practices in photography. He apparently “rearranged” the corpses of Indian rebels in Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow to give his photographs a dramatic effect.

But despite all this, you can’t argue with the power of his photos. Beato predominantly produced albumen-silver prints from wet collodion glass-plate negatives, which is a laborious photography process given the inadequate technology available at the time.

According to the curator of the Mumbai show, Madhavan Pillai, “Photographs of the 19th century often show the limitations of the technology used, yet Beato managed to successfully work within and even transcend those limitations. He mastered the art of the panorama, which he produced by carefully making several contiguous exposures of a scene and then joining the resulting prints together. Hence these are fascinating documents created using limited means.”

The technical genius of Samuel Bourne, who captured the beauty and grandeur of the Himalayas over a century ago, is also on display at the show. Bourne adopted the same photography technique as used by Beato. His stunning photographs depict the rich details of mountains overlooking a stream at Larji, Kulu, and another one of pine trees on the hills of Shimla.

The portraits in the show offer an insight into the lives of the people of that era.

“‘Portraits’ and ‘Nation’ are the two words which build this narrative. The portraits in this exhibition create multi-dimensional discussions and stimulate conversations about the emotion, expression and the social context of the nation which is dynamic and multifaceted apart from generating information about the who, what and when,” says Pillai.

Portraits became objects of fascination for Indian royals in the 19th century.  Featuring in these photos are many  maharajas, maharanis, and their children posing for pictures in their palaces, or what could possibly be makeshift studios. With a new photography process, the daguerreotype introduced in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, people all over the world were enamoured. The wave soon spread to America and consequently to India. In the subcontinent, this form was well explored by the Indian royals. The Nizams, maharajas of the royal Indian families, started getting their ceremonies, rituals and hunting expeditions photographed. Britishers were using photography to promote their rule in India. And now, the Indian royals were projecting their importance through images as well. These photographs were mostly created by the popular Indian photographer Lala Deen Dayal.

At the exhibition, you come across the images of ruined buildings of Lucknow and Delhi—by-products of the 1857 mutiny—by the British-Italian photographer Felice Beato. 

Pillai says, “The twenty images of the royals in Portrait of a Nation: A Nation in Portraits are representative of their social, economic or political might; through these photos, they are capable of both affirming their leadership potential, and of challenging their authority among their subjects, and to establish themselves as equals with the British rulers.” 

In the 19th century, photographs were also painted over. Due to the advent of the camera, there was a serious loss in patronage for painters, and so the painters took to adorning the photos with watercolours, oil, pastels and so on.  This was done to keep the art of the traditional portrait alive. A number of painted photographs from the collection are also on display in the show.

Besides, there are the photochrom prints. Pillai says, “Photochroms are ink-based images produced through ‘direct photographic transfer of an original negative onto lithographic and chromographic printing plates’. Hans Jakob Schmid (1856-1924), who worked for the Swiss firm Orell Füssli, invented the technique in the 1880s. The Detroit Publishing Company published many Photochroms of India, ranging in size from 4.75 inches by 6.5 inches, up to 24-inch by 16-inch panoramas. The two photochrom prints of Red Fort and Meenakshi Temple in the show are quite surreal in nature.”

The Residency, Lucknow, by Felice Beato, 1858.

The exhibition also features 100 stereoscopic images by the photo agency, Underwood & Underwood. The stereoscope images cover a wide range of subjects, such as buildings, rituals, portraits of the maharajas of Gwalior, Tagore, topographical views, and images of wildlife and vegetation.

Pillai talks about the stereoscope. “The technique was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1833, who first came up with the idea of presenting slightly different images to the two eyes using a device he called a reflecting mirror stereoscope. When viewed stereoscopically, he showed that the two images are combined in the brain to produce 3-D depth perception.”

Portrait of a Nation: A Nation in Portraits is on view at Mumbai’s Pundole’s Art Gallery till 24 February 

For a photo feature on this show, turn to pages 30-31

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