The representation of minority communities is a contentious issue that often comes up in modern anthropological contexts. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries though, anthropological and ethnographical studies, situated as they were in a climate that prized empiricism as the key to knowledge and rationality were less interested in the problems associated with ‘accurate renditions’ and the difficulties of portraying the nuances and subtleties that govern the identities of peoples – and more focussed on gathering data. Claiming a superior objectivity that is difficult to argue in a postmodern world, these anthropologists, being products of their time, worked within a binary – constantly producing the ‘Other’ as an inferior subject.
The British colonial project in India was unsurprisingly, deeply invested in gathering information. Extensive surveys were carried out, and with the advent of photography, the camera was heavily employed as a means to record not just topography and terrain, but also the ‘natives’. Much has been written, in recent times, on the ways in which knowledge (and the lens, in this context) was used to impose control and order over a foreign country.
The European colonial project is a complex construct that functioned within a framework of racial and cultural superiority, as also a spiritual, economic, technological and political hierarchy. Early anthropology was closely linked to anthropometry – a belief that anatomical measurements (especially those of the cranium, as being the reservoir of the brain – the primary rational organ) revealed an individual’s intelligence, personality and character. This helped provide colonisers justifications for their perceived superiority. Colonised natives were often stigmatised for their small skull sizes and other ‘unfavourable’ physiognomical characteristics – producing a narrative of what today is termed, scientific racism.
Edgar Thurston introduces his seven volume tome the Castes and Tribes of Southern India, first published in 1909 and intended to be an encyclopaedia of sorts of the social groups living in the Madras Presidency and the erstwhile princely states of Travencore, Mysore, Coorg and Puddokottai, with a discussion on prevailing theories of anthropometry and craniometry and tables of data culled from his own fieldwork.
Thurston, the superintendent of the Madras Museum was assisted by K Rangachari, also an employee of the museum to traverse South India in an attempt to collate information and produce an ethnographic portrait of its people by providing descriptions of their physiognomy, rituals, religious beliefs, social traditions and communal practices.
It is interesting to note that the photographs that illustrate this work are contributions of Rangachari and point to the difficulties associated with access. Thurston himself, points out for instance, that “In carrying out the anthropometric portion of the survey, it was unfortunately impossible to disguise the fact that I am a Government official, and very considerable difficulties were encountered owing to the wickedness of the people, and their timidity and fear of increased taxation, plague inoculation, and transportation. The Paniyan women of the Wynaad believed that I was going to have the finest specimens among them stuffed for the Madras Museum.”
One of the primary ethical issues raised in discussions surrounding colonial ethnography, is that of gaze; one that disclaimed any right of the colonised native to privacy, or self-representation. In the photographs that accompany these seven volumes, there are a number that fall into the problematic of producing subjects as exoticised fantasies, or imagined barbarians – reflecting the text that relies in equal measure on pseudoscience and anecdotes to produce this narrative.
The conventions of colonial ethnographic portraits revolved around the display of traditional clothing, rituals or professions. And while this is the normative format in most of the images that illustrate this text, one must note that unlike many other photographs of its kind, the subjects in these tend to be far more comfortable, staring directly back at the lens, in some cases even defiantly so – or posing for the photographer, perhaps because he is Indian, and in many ways therefore, much more of an insider.
One even observes photographs, were the subjects seem entirely indifferent to the camera absorbed in their own activities, and wonders, romantically whether it displays a moment of inversed power relations, or cynically whether they were captured without their knowledge or assent.
Questioning the use of the camera as a means of control and imaging, modern postcolonial theory has deconstructed the ways in which documentation was used to image and (re)present communities. The pioneering British administrators-ethnographers produced a great number of survey reports and documents that served as a source of invaluable information about varied regions and peoples – their rituals, religious beliefs, social traditions and communal practices. At the same time, this information was used to promote colonial agendas and usually constructed the native as a backward, primitive savage.
Although these ethnographers operated under a certain subjective bias that is by and large visible in all of their writing, rendering them obsolete in contemporary times, they help us articulate the politics, and refigure the limitations, of representation.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
Images: From the Castes and Tribes of South India, taken from print editions in the public domain. Digital copies of the entire seven volumes are available at the Gutenberg Library.