‘Mimesis registers both sameness and difference, of being like and of being other, yet all identity formation is engaged in this habitually bracing activity in which the issue is not so much staying the same, but maintaining sameness through alterity’.
– Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity.
In the 19th century, photography seen as an ‘infrastructure of transparency’, provided a greater visual veracity to the colonisers to comprehend, conceptualise and control the foreign lands (and its people), by depicting ‘true reality’ as ‘evidence’ instead of representation as in engravings, lithographs and picturesque paintings. The factual photographic reality soon became the centerpiece of the colonial world and provided colonisers with the agency to intervene, reform and regulate the ‘Other’ civilisations. But when the same representational logic and technological codes were appropriated by the colonised, it not only re-invented the ‘native’ as a hybridised subject but also opened up the seepages between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘real’ within the very structure of the photographic apparatus. In India, photographic studio spaces played a crucial role in creating photographic perceptions which straddled between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘real’.
After the uprising of 1857 in India, the British Empire replaced the rule of East India Company and brought princely states under its direct control. The ambiguous British policy of paramountcy, on the one hand deprived kings of their foreign, military powers and on the other promised them protection from the domestic enemies.It allowed them to govern their kingdoms without interference but only under the watchful eyes of colonial officers. Political agents were appointed by the Governor General of India to advise the ruling classes on important political, financial decisions and help them to develop their kingdoms into modern states¹.Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur (1852-1880), trained in western education under a British tutor, was a king who not only employed modern infrastructures and education to bring reforms (like abolishing sati,schools for girls, state hospitals) within his princely states, but also someone who used visual technologies to indulge in an image building exercise as a ‘modern’ king, in tune with Victorian sensibilities. Skilled enough to make modern gestures from time to time in order to win British favours and resist colonial interference to keep his powers intact, he used photography to produce images in accordance with a British aesthetic frame, and need for ‘transparency’ only to maintain alterity through sameness. Within his photographic studio space ‘photukhana’, in front of the camera, he playfully mimicked various identities, producing hybridised photographs which‘straddled and contested the separating boundary between coloniser and the colonised, the English and the native’².He was the first photographer king to use his personal camera to produce photographs in such quantity (some 2000 glass negatives), including landscape, architectural views, self studio-portraits and portraits of women in Zenana³.
Familiarity with photography and photographic spaces within India marked an important moment of rupture and assimilation from the earlier modes of representational mediums. Even though individualised photographic representations of the subjects differed from the earlier generic representational conventions, but still the inculcation of photographs within the existent artistic traditions of paintings also produced a new genre of hybrid imagery – the painted photographs.
The‘re-alignment of perception’⁴ with the realism and the representation of photographic images at a mass level began with the dissemination of photographic apparatus and circulation of cartes- de- visite, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Photography emerged out of the confinements of the elite and royal circles and appealed to the newly emerging educated middle-class. Within the important commercial centers like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, various photographic studios were established and catered to the self-fashioning needs of the bourgeoisie or feudal lord families, reinstating themselves as citizens of modern society. Jaipur, being a seat of royal power and one of the important centers for the production of industrial arts, was captured photographically by the important photographers such as Lala Deen Dayal and Bourne and Shepherd, but its first photographic studio wasn’t established until the late 1880s, by Gobindram and Oodeyram, located in Chandpole bazaar. Though their main photographic interest was the city itself⁵, they too photographed the important visits of the various Dukes, dignitaries, and also produced ‘Nautch’ girls carte-de-visites, photographed in their studios.
Constituted within the logic of Western tradition of single point perspective, two-dimensional photographic ‘reality’, produced within colonial studios was accentuated by carefully emphasising the play of light to create shadows, painted backdrops with subdued naturalism, ‘frontality’ of the body as focal point and performative gestures of the subject dressed in full regalia, to create an illusion of three dimensional reality on the surface of an image. Whereas with the popularisation of photography in the early decades of 20th century, neighbourhood studios of the ‘natives’, predominantly became the spaces of emplacement and experimentation, where various visual signifiers were deployed to construct photographic reality which contested everyday societal hierarchies, transgressed taboos and created new cultural identities. Such photographic imagery opened up the new terrains of visibility that made visible the ‘invisible/unspeakable’. Interestingly at the local level, other than valuing photography for its truth-documentary status, the masses (through performativity, masquerade and staging of the photographic space with props and backdrops), developed a sense of ‘playfulness’, while engaging with photographic realism.
These images produced in the photographic studio of Jaipur around 1930s, by an unknown photographer, clearly capture the transforming moment of the early 20th century Indian studios when the continuation of the 19th century colonial legacy of constructing a studio space is still evident, but within the photographs themselves there is no emphasis on the verisimilitude and desire for fidelity within the space of image production.In these photographs, subjects are dressed in royal regalias, headgears (or according to their professional identities), while standing next to a royalchair or sitting with a sword on an oriental motif rugs, in a confirmatory pose of wealth and class status. In other photographs, they are dressed as modern sports persons with tennis racquets or hunting gear with overlapping painted backdrops (painted in the naturalistic idiom) deployed for purely decorative functions in the background. These photographs bring forth the allegiance and differences of these subjects with the modern photographic language. They can be seen as the traces of the tumultuous times when in reality aristocratic power was slipping out of hands of the elite, but within the imaginary space of the studio attempts were made to contest the reality and recapture the past.
– Sameena Siddiqui
- Rajputana under British Paramountcy: The failure of Indirect Rule, by Lloyd I. Rudolph and Sussane Hoeber Rudolph, accessed at JSTOR on 02/07/2013.
- Between objectivity and illusion: Architectural Photography in the colonial frame by Vikramaditya Prakash, accesses at JSTOR on 30/06/2013.
- http://msmsmuseum.com/pages.php?id=4, accessed on 01/07/2013.
- ‘Re-alignment of perception’ – by this I mean a two fold process where the ordering of the things of perception simultaneously orders the social structure itself and produces different modalities of power. For example, at the time of photography’s arrival as a part of the imperial project in India, the colonized subjects were able to re-order its conceptual parameters in order to relate to, and extend their epistemic reality. This challenged the hegemonic way of seeing the world, which the colonizer wanted to teach the colonized subjects, and it happened mainly by adapting and adopting the imported apparatuses of perception.
- Uncredited photographs by Gobindram and Oodeyram by Jochaim K. Bautze, accessed at JSTOR on 01/07/2013.