Portrait of a Nation: Travel back in time for a look at 19th century photographs of the Indian subcontinent
Red Fort, Delhi, Unknown Photographer; Process: Photocrom; Year: Unknown; View this at Pundole’s Mumbai as part of Sarmaya’s debut photography exhibition, Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits
A Nation in Portraits
It was just after the 1857 War of Independence that the Italian-British photographer, Felice Beato, arrived in India. He was commissioned by the War Office in London to photograph the sites associated with the event. Guided by military officers, he photographed the landscape of the uprising in Delhi, Kanpur and Meerut through fractured vistas and wounded structures. Soon, Beato came to be known as the world’s first war photographer and is believed to have produced the first-ever photographs of corpses, including that of the skeletal remains of Indian fighters at the palace of Sikandar Bagh, Lucknow. And now, 11 of his albumen silver prints can be seen as part of the exhibition, Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits, at the Pundole’s, Mumbai. This also marks the debut exhibition of Sarmaya, a carefully curated repository of art, artefacts and living traditions from the Indian subcontinent, founded by Paul Abraham in 2015.
Viewing the photos on display is like looking at India through different lenses – with each photographer’s work shining the spotlight on a different facet of the nation. In sharp contrast to Beato’s images are those of monuments, tribes and culture nestled amidst the majestic Himalayas, taken by Samuel Bourne, who founded India’s longest running photo studio, Bourne & Shepherd. 12 such albumen silver prints paint a vivid picture of his expeditions into the mountains, often with an entourage of 40 porters, as he travelled from Shimla to Chini, and beyond.
Personal History of India
A Nation in Portraits enmeshes personal stories of photographers such as Bourne and Raja Deen Dayal with a broader history of 19th century-India. It also brings into focus the changing technology and the art of photo making, from albumen silver prints to Photochrom prints. “When we contemplated the idea of the exhibition and the notion of a portrait, we wanted to see how could we define it in the context of the nation,” says Paul Abraham of Sarmaya. “Today, when we use our mobile phones to document every moment of our life, it is important to stop and reflect on a time when every photograph was an adventure.” That was a period when 30 to 40 people could be seen carrying heavy equipment, weighing between 50 and 100 kilos, and containers filled with chemicals, often setting up camp in harsh and solitary terrain. Each photo was a work of art, created by a series of collaborations between draughtsmen, pastors, photographers, explorers, chemists, and more.
And true to this spirit, this show too brings about a series of collaborations, with curation by Madhavan Pillai, exhibition design by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, and visual and graphic design by Pavitra Rajaram. “The idea is also to explore the myriad ways in which photography can be used as a tool for storytelling,” says Rajaram. “So, we also have a pop-up, done in collaboration with the Dharavi Art Room. Five children from Dharavi, aged 14 to 16 years, have explored issues such as displacement and migration, through photography.”
Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits can be viewed at Pundole’s, Hamilton House, Mumbai, between January 24 and February 28, 2018.
Patiala’s Qila Mubarak Rises to Former Glory with Panorama Punjab Festival
Remembering the Legacy of Textile Revivalist Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh
Here’s What to Expect at the 10th Edition of India Art Fair