Politics of Art

How the camera mediates the popular history of India

Written by Akshaya Tankha | Published: May 18, 2013 3:36 am

On Deen Dayal and the diplomacy involved in royal photographic portraiture,the reader is left to ponder over one of the more unlikely “portraits” from 1891: a group photograph with Nawab Galib Jung,“a Hyderabadi nobleman and his western friends” (see right) as they huddle together to listen to the “first phonograph” where the camera,and the Nawab appear to play second fiddle to the newly-arrived technology. On the subject of the colonial state and the aesthetics of warfare we are made to consider another peculiar photograph,“Pyramids of ammunition at Fort William,Calcutta” by the German Frederick Fiebig from the early 1850s. The densely packed and precisely arranged mountains of what appear to be cannon balls dominate the foreground of the Maidan ,with a turret of the Fort visible in the far right corner of the image. The photograph seems to anticipate both the upheavals of 1857 as well as later surrealist experiments with imaging war in Europe during the 1920-30s that Walter Benjamin termed the “politicisation of art”. And on the early history of the aesthetics of imaging conjugality we are faced with an instance of what Roland Barthes would call the “punctum” of the photograph — that tiny though arresting visual detail in the image that undermines its purported rhetoric. What stands out and unravels the picture of domesticity in this case is the detail of the woman’s arm folded behind her back and away from her partner’s body in a studio image from the 1880s that strangely makes us question the “truth” of the couple’s relationship,even if it might simply reflect the norms of staging intimacy in the 19th century.

The joy of reading Malavika Karlekar’s Visual Histories lies in the ways in which she picks out images for discussion that refuse to simply illustrate a “history of photography”. Instead,her essays,most of which appeared in The Telegraph between 2005 and 2013,foreground “the role of the camera” in mediating a popular history of colonial and postcolonial India,our relationship with the past and even recollection as such. For instance,an eye to the “popular” leads her to consider the many ways in which a history of photography is also about images missing from the archive. Like the excited moment when Sarah Massey,her family and indeed the town celebrate the arrival of the first Ford in Dehradun in 1914 with a photograph of 14 people atop it,an image that never survived to tell the tale. Or in the form of images that were never taken yet which linger on in our collective imagination as “absent possibilities”,like the image that got away from the prolific press photographer Homai Vyarawala,who failed,against her instincts,to reach Birla House the day Gandhi was assassinated.

But then there are moments in the book where the power of photography pales in comparison to the vast reservoir of “popular imagination”,which appears in such acts of memorialisation as a mithai called ledikeni,named in honour of Lady Charlotte Canning,the first Vicerine of India. Karlekar’s grasp of social and cultural history allows her to switch from a consideration of photography in relation to the quotidian such as the above to weightier issues such as the events of 1857 (Sites of Past Conflict) or the Partition (A Monsoon of Hatred and Despair) with an ease that highlight photography’s dispersed histories,entangled in literary,historical,artistic and anecdotal reflections of times past.

Visual Histories is an informative and entertaining account of photography in India that references past studies by John Falconer,Christopher Pinney,Elizabeth Edwards,Sabeena Gadihoke and many others,including Karlekar’s own writings,for a wide readership. My only reservation is that the book would have benefitted from a slightly more detailed discussion of images,in relation to other images and to other ways of making pictures in addition to the socio-political and cultural contexts of the time. Also,a brief reflection on the continuities and departures in the trends of imaging colonial and postcolonial India would have been a welcome addition to an otherwise enjoyable volume.

Akshaya Tankha,previously a researcher with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts,Delhi,is pursuing a PhD on visual culture in northeast India

For all the latest News Archive News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results