If your inner child hasn’t yet been smothered by the burden of grown-up concerns, you probably enjoy picture books like Malavika Karlekar’s Memories of Belonging: Images from the Colony and Beyond (Niyogi Books), a collection of essays based on the visual record of the Raj. The material mostly derives from her newspaper columns, and so, the range of themes is amazing. Visual variety runs from the cover of Stray Feathers, the bird-watcher’s journal edited by Allan Hume, to a dramatic lithograph depicting the death of Bishop Heber due to a cold water bath at Trichinopoly.
The camera phone and the internet have made sharing commonplace but before the Baby Brownie era, it was a routine and carefully planned act, the same as making a living. People set aside a part of their time for memorialising, in order to share later. Even more than the diarists who flourished in the era of colonial expansion, artists and photographers were valued for their visual recording abilities, especially in camp or on campaign in distant parts. Officials who got “upcountry” postings or were involved in security operations, and their families, brought everyday life in South Asia to life for the rest of the empire.
The visual arts became politically important both as media communications and propaganda, leveraged for furthering “native” interests as for the projection of colonial power. In 1889, Karlekar notes, Sorabji Jehangir, chief magistrate of Baroda, produced a collection of memoirs accompanied by photos of prominent citizens attributed to Vincent Brooke Day and Son of London, and titled Representative Men of India. It was intended to help newspaper readers in the UK “to put faces to the names that they read about.”
But propaganda preceded well-meaning communications by decades. There are, for instance, the corpse-strewn pictures of early war photographer Felice Beato (not included in this collection), showing the fatal consequences of contesting British interests in Asia, from the freshly liberated Lucknow Residency to coastal China under naval bombardment during the Second Opium War. As much as the colourful stories of bravery and sacrifice in the Illustrated London News, such images helped to give momentum to the idea of Pax Britannica.
Some of the people whose art is reproduced here were famed for other exploits. For instance, Captain Robert Melville Grindlay is remembered as the founder of Grindlays Bank, a doughty old brand from 1828 whose name vanished when it was absorbed by Standard Chartered in 2000. Here, Captain Grindlay is represented by a lithograph titled: ‘A Suttee – preparing for the immolation of a Hindoo widow, c. 1820.’
Short essays by Karlekar accompany the images, providing context and connections. A photograph of the checkpoint at the Khyber Pass at the turn of the century (much less dramatic than one imagined it), is followed by the observation that in wartime, it was more prudent for an Englishwoman to be an Afghan hostage than to attempt a march across the lines.
A pair of devastating before and after images embarrass Lord Curzon, who loved the Taj Mahal so much that he “improved” it enthusiastically for the world’s tourists. The first image is a lushly overgrown view of the Taj by the botanical artist Marianne North, which appeared in Edwin Arnold’s India Revisited (1886). The second, from the 1920s, is the familiar picture postcard view with the Taj dominating the landscape, dwarfing the vegetation. In between, Curzon had erased the Mughal garden, the axis of the architecture and cultural life of the period, and replaced its bowers with boring English lawns.
The essays in Memories of Belonging are loosely divided into sections but are so varied that the reader can sample them at random. Even readers familiar with the period will encounter images they have never seen before. My favourite is a haunting photograph from the 1890s by Shapoor N Bhedwar, titled The World Renounced, from his album Art Studies. If the pre-Raphaelites had opened a Bombay chapter, this is what they might have produced.