The People of India was published in eight volumes between 1868 and 1875, and contains over 486 pasted in albumen photographs depicting the ‘Races and Tribes of Hindustan’. The project was commissioned under the patronage of Governor-General Lord Canning and his wife, Lady Canning – both of whom were great early patrons of photography in India. It is reported that the Cannings simply wanted a photo album to carry home with them to England ‘which might recall to their memories the peculiarities of Indian life’. Whatever their reason, the result is perhaps one of the most ambitious and fascinating publications in India’s extensive photographic history.
The importance and cultural value of The People of India can be split into three categories: Its position as a remarkable visual record of the diverse social and ethnic groups present on the Indian Subcontinent in the late 19th century, its existence as an object which tells us much about the time and context in which it was produced, and finally, its most basic role as a vehicle for the often exquisite photographic portraits it contains.
Sitters are described in incredibly derogatory language by the accompanying letterpress. Among several examples, we learn that the character of a Kashmir Musulmani ‘is not very respectable…’, but that by contrast, the women grasscutters of Madras are, ‘a very industrious and useful race”. Whilst making rather awkward reading in the post colonial era, these base but equally illuminating descriptions add rather than detract from what the publication can teach us; they show how far, at least in language, notions of equality and respect for marginalized social groups have progressed in the past 150 years – but they also remind us that this progression is by no means absolute.
This critical reading of The People of India is not only a product of recent analysis and there has in fact been criticism of the publication right from the start. In his book, The Coming of Photography in India, Christopher Pinney cites a letter by Syed Ahmed Khan – ‘a prominent muslim of the day’ – to the Aligarh Scientific Society,
‘In the India Office is a book in which all the races of India are depicted both in picture and in letterpress, giving the manners and customs of each race. Their photographs show that the pictures of the different manners and customs were taken on the spot, and the sight of them shows how savage they are – the equal of animals. The young Englishman … desirous of knowing something of the land to which they are going … look over this work. What can they think, after pursuing this book and looking at its pictures of the power and honour of the natives of India?’
Photography is often a slave to its context, for better or for worse. When seen in a dusty leather bound book the sitters do become objects of observation – objectified, and thus striped of personal identity. This phenomenological approach to understanding the book is vital to the social historian or cultural theorist, and is an area of photographic study unto itself. Indeed, when handling the book, it is easy to imagine it being housed in a grand Victorian library, wedged, perhaps, between botanical and topographical tomes – the classification of human types being part and parcel of the 19th century desire for classification – of which the invention of photography itself was part.
Yet photography also inherently pulls the other way – against this contextual reading. All portraits have the ability to encourage compassion in the viewer. When we look at these photographs, we therefore see the context of oppression that led to its commission, but we also are presented with the opportunity to study these individuals in all their dignified, poised and often beautiful glory. They have been captured for posterity, and as the audience of the book shifts away from the colonialist and towards the more compassionate modern observer – the book conversely elevates the very sitters it once disarmed.
Perhaps the power of The People of India is therefore a result of the mixed message it communicates – on the one hand we are uncomfortable about the categorisation of people into ‘types’, whilst on the other we are moved by the beauty of predominantly ‘ordinary’ people who subsequently live on forever as individuals, and as part not only of the history of India, but the history of photography too.
The People of India was ‘prepared under the authority of the Government of India’. The photographs shown here all come from the first volume of the set, which was published by W. H. Allen & Co (publishers to the India Office at the time) in London, and some of these are in the Tasveer collection.