Nothing brings history into focus like a photograph. The Science Museum’s Illuminating India exhibition traces an arc from when photography arrived in India circa 1839 until today, from the earliest salt prints to digital images.

The displays pivot around the key dates of the Uprising in 1857 and 1947 Independence, culminating in some intimate commentary on contemporary India. The exhibition narrative explains that photography was used by the military and colonial administration to dominate and document the people, architecture and landscape of Greater India. The first section details the situation in Meerut 1957, with Sepoys unable to bite open the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles that were greased in cow and pig fat; the first Nationalist Uprising had begun and the British fled to places of safety, while the anti-colonial rebellion spread. Displayed is a shocking picture of Sepoys executed by hanging and distressing statistics of 100,000 to 1million Indian fatalities during the Cawnpore conflict. Representations of the “glittering Shia city of Lucknow” before and after the siege of 1857 are by Ahmad Ali Khan- court photographer to the last king and very likely India’s first photographer- and Felice Beato often described as the first photojournalist, whose panorama of the Qaiserbagh is impressive. These sites of conflict became morbid tourist attractions until 1914, being even more popular than the Taj Mahal.

Proceeding through John Murray’s 1958 documentations of Mughal architecture, the viewer finds Samuel Bourne’s photographs of the Manirung Pass and the source of the Ganges a beautiful respite.

The status of royalty and the importance of C19th court photography is displayed in a kaleidoscope of well-dressed nobles, women of the zenana and the works photographer Prince Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II; leading on to early C20th water-coloured prints of families worshiping Shrinathji, Zoroastriasn and Jain monks and various family occasions. The everyday lives of prawn sellers, dancing girls, hijras and other folk are fascinatingly documented by the studio of Gobindram and Oodegram or wonderful unknown photographers, but Maurice Vidal Portman’s nature studies of the Andaman people make uncomfortable viewing.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, from the series A Myth of Two Souls (2013 ).  Photo:  Vasantha Yogananthan

Moving through time to 1946 to a still of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, photographed by Margaret Bourke White at the press conference, where he renounced the Indian Cabinet’s plan and declared his intention to create Pakistan. Images of Gandhi’s funeral and of Nehru announcing Gandhi’s assassination to a crying crowd at Birla House on January 30th 1948 were recorded by renowned French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson; the anti-imperialist riot and burning of police vehicles in Calcutta on Rashid Ali day 1942; victims of police firing on demonstrators during the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny in 1946; Margaret Bourke White’s moving pictures of immigration and refugees at Purana Qila also in 1946, are followed by a shocking picture of human skeletons called ‘Hunger India’. The crowds at the Red Fort for Independence photographed by Homai Vyarawalla are redolent of the crowds at BJP rallies today.

This report has skipped through the remarkable archive accumulated for this unmissable exhibition, there are also stunning architectural photographs of the Atomic Centre in Trombay 1966, Tata Steel works, The Hindustan Times building and Chandigarh’s High Court.

The techie affinity of Indians latched on to the camera’s medium with alacrity right from the beginning to right now; the display concludes with three contrasting comments on contemporary Indian culture. Sohrab Hura’s intimate video exposure of ten years of living with his schizophrenic mother and her dog is an emotional examination of the meaning of family life and love. Olivia Arthur’s daring photographic reflection on LGBT sexual diversity in religiously conservative Mumbai, is both a confident celebration of secret sexual orientation and a stark criticism of diminishing religious freedoms in Mumbai. Finally, in an extra-ordinary reportage aligning the ancient and the modern Vasantha Yogananthan traversed India north to south, capturing images of Indians today and matching them to various ancient verses from Valmiki’s Ramayana.

The exhibition is a visual and emotional roller coaster, not to be missed.



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