Windows to the Past

From the idyllic architectural views of the 1850s to emotive portraiture of the early 20th century, an exhibition chronicles early photography in India.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published: July 2, 2015 12:00 am
photography, photo archive, india photography, early photography, john murray, john murray photography, john murray photos, photo, photo exhibition, indian express Raja Deen Dayal’s photo of the Maharaja of Bijawa.

Arguably the first to photograph the Taj Mahal, John Murray turned his camera on several other Mughal monuments in the region as well. During the 40 years that he was in Agra, the Scottish-born doctor recorded many famous monuments, also documenting sites of military interest to the British and frames that depicted their might. His preoccupation with both the engagements is now evident at 33, Cork Street, London. Among the 26 photographs in the exhibition “The New Medium: Photography in India 1855-1930”, there is Murray’s Taj, behind its magnificent gardens, and another albumen print of a pyramid of cannonballs piled in front of the Pearl mosque in Agra — reflecting a period of reinvigorated British colonial dominance. “One of the oldest photographs in the exhibition, taken in 1858, is also historically significant as it was taken shortly after the Indian rebellion; it shows how the mosque was used as an arsenal,” says Prahlad Bubbar, London-based collector of Indian and Islamic art, curator and owner of the collection.

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The oldest print on display is a 1855 photograph of the caves of Karlie in Maharashtra. The photographer is William Johnson, founding member of the Bombay Photographic Society, who collaborated with William Henderson in the 1850s to publish a monthly journal Indian Amateurs Photographic Album, illustrated with albumen prints. In the South, meanwhile, photographing the landscape and architecture were John and James Nicholas. The exhibition has their print of the tomb of Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali and a passage of the temple of Kilipputtu Muntapam. “Sites associated with Tipu were of particular interest to the British, who viewed him as a formidable and worthy opponent in the Mysore wars of the late 18th century,” notes Bubbar.

photography, photo archive, india photography, early photography, john murray, john murray photography, john murray photos, photo, photo exhibition, indian express The tomb of Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali.

There is the celebrated court painter Raja Deen Dayal too. Bubbar has possibly one of his earliest works; an exquisite print of the famed temple of Khajuraho, dating back to the early 1880s, when he toured Bundelkhand with Sir Lepel Griffin. Dayal became the official photographer to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, and was one of the practitioners of photographic portraits that replaced miniature paintings as a medium for historical documentation. The exhibition has Dayal’s portrait of the Maharaja of Bijawar surrounded by his court; also a 1894 print of the three princes from Gwalior seated before a painted vista on leather chairs with ornamental drapery and flowers. “Images of children were a particular test for the photographer, who needed to ensure that there was as little movement during exposure as possible,” says Bubbar.

photography, photo archive, india photography, early photography, john murray, john murray photography, john murray photos, photo, photo exhibition, indian express Murray’s photograph of the Pearl Mosque.

While the domestic practitioners were thriving, the royalty also hired celebrated world photographers. So among the rare prints is a Yashwantrao Holkar II portrait by the legendary American artist Man Ray — symbolic of the growing influence of modernism as well the increased cultural exchange between India and the West.

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