A visually captivating close-up has ornate foot jewellery worn by a Hindu bride. In another frame, a family poses in front of their houseboat at the Kelani Ganga river in Colombo, and another photograph has extravagantly costumed elephants parading through the streets during an annual Buddhist procession. These are three of the 125 photographs that comprise “Imaging the Isle Across: Vintage Photography from Ceylon”. On at the National Museum in Delhi, the exhibition depicts Sri Lanka in the 1880s. “In a way, we are looking at an archive, because in the 19th century the borders that one had with the adjoining countries were not as politically set as they are today.
It all came under the British India empire, which means there was migration and exchange,” says Rahaab Allana, curator for the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, who has put together the exhibition to commemorate 90 years of art collector and his grandfather Ebrahim Alkazi. Curated from the Alkazi Collection of Photography, Allana says this is perhaps for the first time that life that existed in Sri Lanka in the 19th century is on view for the Indian audience, the histories of which “are not part of our contemporary memory and have not been seen before”.
Focussing on the streets, architecture and people of Ceylon — the land the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish and French seafarers first identified as Zeilon and which is present day Sri Lanka — the exhibition comprises photographs, rare prints and a documentary film that discusses the colonial influence on architecture and life in Colombo and Kandy, and the plantation workers. There are also works of two prominent Sri Lankans, photographer and cinematographer Lionel Wendt and contemporary artist Anoli Perera.
Predominantly a Buddhist country, and home to many minorities, it is only apt to spot a photograph of Burmese monks praying at the Kandy Temple, with their hands folded, encircling their most venerated symbol — a tooth, a relic of the Buddha. Peasants, coconut pickers, tribals and labourers serve as models in other photographs. In one of the many frames, an unknown worker wearing only a loin cloth, steps into the shoes of a larger-than-life heroic character in a studio. Another photograph dating back to 1880s, shot at Kadugannawa, on the road from Colombo to Kandy, shows how difficult it is to build roads in Ceylon, as it carves out of a tall swollen rock. Other images offer an idyllic view of colonial Sri Lanka, with its palm trees, fishing boats, hills and vast plantation fields.
The images mapping the construction of railways in the neighbouring landscape are worth pondering upon. Allana says, “The railways are always interesting. They show the development of civic works and industrialisation at a time when most countries in the West were industrialised and did not have such open fields,” adding, “They are also metaphors for entering the inner land and for resource extraction, because after all this was the colonial period. You can’t ignore the fact that there was slavery and complete manipulation of labour forces. We are looking at an interaction between the documentary evidence through photography and the pictorial beauty of the images, and how to reconcile the two.”
Assisting in giving a better understanding of what we share with our southern neighbour, 35-year-old Allana says, “The point of any archive is to say that there are histories that are hidden and does it change our perception of what the relationships with the countries are today. Can we actually come to a dialogue about what those histories are if we don’t talk about what exists today?”
The exhibition is on till November 10 at the National Museum, Rajpath Area, Central Secretariat, Delhi.
The story appeared in print with the headline On the Road to Lanka