THE COLONIAL REGIME IN INDIA first attempted a panopticon-like ethnographic survey of its subjects in The People of India, an eight-volume collection of photographs, compiled by the Scottish writer John Forbes Watson and the British historian John Kaye, between 1868 and 1875. It assembled the “native castes and tribes of India” as subjects of study. These subjects sometimes belonged to tribes identified by the Raj as possessing criminal propensities. Watson and Kaye usually photograph their subjects standing painfully stiff against a wall—or a similarly unyielding background. They have little protection from the gaze of the viewer, and even less human dignity. Even when identified as useful members of society, the details of their religion, caste and occupation precede—and usually preclude—any humane understanding of them as individuals.
A typical account runs like this: “The barber, Hindu or Musalman, is indispensable to the village. … Barbers always belong to village communities. ... They are of good Sudra caste, not intermarrying or eating with other castes or tribes.” The sepia tones of the photographs cannot obscure the fact that caste drives identity in the eyes of the beholder. Indeed, caste effortlessly prevails over occupation and religion. It dictates the viewer’s line of vision, and determines what she is to see. The costume, the gestures and the interest in the work at hand, shown by both barber and client in their attentive postures, count for little, as the accompanying text blazons the determining role of caste in the construction of personal, professional and communitarian identity. In this way, we realise that we have to deal with a simultaneous imposition and erasure of identity.
Moreover, such a photographic plate reinforces two kinds of subject positioning. It demonstrates that British administrators were able to codify and manage Indian identity in terms of its most demeaning common denominator: caste. To know India was to rule India as effectively as possible. It also reminds a contemporary viewer that Indian identity will remain fragmented because it is uniquely determined by caste. Even after the apparent dismantling of empire, therefore, such compilations take forward the dehumanising legacy of visual politics. Indians see each other along the same lines that their erstwhile rulers saw them.