The photographs below form part of an exhibition at Tasveer which looked at the representation of women in Indian photography from the 1850s – 1950s. An essay on the exhibition can be seen here.
The exhibition was divided into 5 categories, the fifth of which, “Abstract Spaces: In the Studio” can be be seen below.
Abstract Spaces: In the Studio
This section of the exhibition foregrounds feminine identities that dispensed with spatial specifications, or chose to position themselves in abstract spaces that would enable a timeless memory of themselves. The studio portrait gave the middle classes an opportunity for pictorial self-representation that had earlier been reserved to oil portraits of the elite, yet, here we see royal princesses as much as ordinary women having themselves photographed. The camera’s democratic potential is thus clearly discernible as it temporarily positioned its sitters on the equal footing of being subjects before the same lens. The access to and circulation of these portraits of course calls for a new sort of hierarchy, the photographs of royal ladies reaching palatial spaces while those of more ordinary women went to middle class homes. As such, two images of women in rigid side profile and conventional clothing appear confidently besides portraits of women in stylishly short hair, lighter saris and minimal jewelry, the latter flaunting their status as modern examples of an elite class. The latter is especially exemplified here by royalty from Jaipur and Cooch Bihar, known for the internationally acclaimed beauty of its princesses Indira Devi and Gayatri Devi. The sitter’s own identity, wealth and confidence of posture demarcated differences, even as the backgrounds and studio setups remained muted in abstraction.
An example each of hand tinted and over painted portraits are indicative of the ways in which Indian photography deviated from its western counterpart, its own lineage owing to miniature painting traditions that celebrated two dimensionality, as compared to academic realism of the West. Applications of paint on photographic surfaces were meant to enhance portraits, enliven them and compensate for technological lack such as colour or material absences such as jewelry on the original. This initiative by persons such as studio artists in infusing meaning to photographs such that they became fuller representations of feminine persona carries well into the post independence period of Indian visual culture, with only method and not intention transforming through time.
– Suryanandini Narain