Since the advent of photography in the nineteenth century, India has played subject to the lens of a whole host of travellers making their way through the variegated subcontinent in an attempt to capture its spirit and their journey. The invention of photography coinciding with the intensification of British presence in India as a colonising power, British photographers were at the forefront of this scene, producing a consumable image of India – as the jewel of the British Empire – for those back home.
It is important to understand that this image was never complete nor unchanging; the position of the British government towards its Indian subjects was in constant flux and produced differing interpretations, sometimes even contradictory ones. Though the visual signification must therefore be understood as complex and multi-layered, it also necessary to read them within the framework of colonial power structures that influenced their creation; that enabled them, in as much as the photographs themselves facilitated these discourses.
Photography from the very beginning, served a multitude of other purposes including scientific documentation, geographical and archaeological studies, ethnographical surveys, portraiture, etc and was meant for both commercial and private consumption. Much of this was directly linked to administrative directives and governmental control, and as such, clearly illustrate the use of photography as a medium to enable control over territory and peoples. As John Falconer points out “While the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake was the explicit motive for the surveys which had been instituted soon after the beginnings of British rule, they also came to form an integral part of an ideology to tabulate, systematize, and ultimately control the culture of a subcontinent…”
When it comes to landscapes and architecture, an extremely common and popular theme in nineteenth century photographs produced in India however, the link between colonial power and the subjugated natives on the surface seems slightly nebulous. Scholars have in the past emphasised the manner in which the British showed a particular affinity for the history of the Mughal dynasty in India, comparing themselves as a similar ‘civilizing force’ that would bring much needed order and culture to the savage natives – which has been seen as directly realised in the numerous nineteenth century photographs of Mughal sites in Delhi and Agra. Though this may have never been a concentrated effort on the part of the British, it is hard to ignore that the proclivity of the British to photograph Mughal architecture and ruins was likely to be informed by a self perception that constructed them as being the new rulers of India.
The predominance of architecture and landscapes in nineteenth century photographs was also due to the technology of the era, that included amongst its many practical requirements, a long exposure time – for which the stillness of these subjects were admirably suited. However primarily one may consider them to be documents, it is impossible to view them as objective records since they were products of an Imperial ideology that has since affected the ways in which they are read within the postcolonial world. Even when produced without official agendas, these photographs operated on British cultural biases and forged a particular Indian identity that focused on the control of the Raj and the ‘otherness’ of the Indian subject. Gary Sampson, a pioneer in work on colonial photography writes of how these photos can be seen as a display of “the paternalistic face” of the empire, which legitimised British control over India’s heritage in light of the incapacity of the native to comprehend and appreciate their historical importance.
It is indisputable that early representations of India were constructed with a certain formal compulsion for the ‘picturesque’, an aesthetic tradition prevalent at the time in Europe that had roots in the Romanticism of an earlier century. As Saloni Mathur elucidates, while it is easy to dismiss the adaptation of this aesthetic in representations of India as “a rather innocuous act of visual assimilation”, these representations of “sublime, heroic views of India’s landscapes and historical architecture” intersect with “imperial discourses of exploration and mapping the ‘natural’ world.” In an Empiricist moment obsessed with taxonomy and scientific classification, the framing of the land (and heritage) in these photographs established a certain notion of control and possession.
Further, the picturesque as a deeply embedded Victorian pictorial convention, it has been pointed out, hinged on the beauty of the nature which the viewer, as voyeur, could look upon from a vantage point of safety outside the frame. This is all the more relevant to its transference within this scenario, wherein the ‘foreign-ness’ of the land and people of India was consumable from afar; where the colonial gaze could savour the picturesque views of natural beauty and crumbling architecture but remain safely situated at a distance from its malevolent influences.
One of the most prolific photographers of the picturesque, and this time, was Samuel Bourne who explicated that it was his desire to “attain such rarefied spectacles and conceive of them as pictorially compelling photographs.” Particularly influential over the visual regime of the nineteenth century, especially translating as tourist souvenirs and postcards, his photographs and others such as of those Francis Firth and Felice Beato, produced a visual culture that packaged and re-presented a specific idea of India. The use of depth and the positioning of human figures in the foreground to produce a sense of wondrous scale is a commonly observed device in these photographs, that helped present these landscapes as magnificent – wherein lied their popular appeal – and as within the realm of the Empire.
In the twenty first century, it has been established without doubt that it is as impossible for the camera to entirely escape subjectivity, as it is for us to escape our biases. Felice Beato’s photographs of the 1857 Mutiny, taken months after the event, have often within the discourse of colonial photography been used to illustrate the ways in which photographs were deliberately and explicitly staged in order to conform to political interests. Images of the memorial in Kanpur or the Satti Chaura Ghat, known as the Massacre Ghat, that represented the death of the British during the Mutiny – without the compositional arrangements made by Beato – carry the same palpable political and emotional weight. The argument therefore lies in the fact that though these photographs were not necessarily always made with a conscious intention to solidify British rule in India, these photographers and visual culture at large was inevitably part of the colonial structure – its affect varying only by degrees – from commercial concerns (as to what would sell) to political rhetoric (as to the civilising influence of the British whether in historical preservation and documentation or industrial development).
These photographs therefore form an integral part of our understanding of history and as Mathur expounds, need to be seen not merely as “static relics to be collected, catalogued, and preserved, but as repositories of meanings within dynamic cultures whose own stories and values change over time.”
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
Mathur, Saloni. India by Design: Colonial History and Cultural Display(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007)
Eds. Sampson, Gary & Hight, Eleanor. Colonialist Photography: Imag(in)ing Race and Place (New York and Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2002)