The Power of the Photograph

If one gives them a chance, some of the Historic Delhi images can make a familiar city appear utterly fresh

Samuel Bourne’s photo of the Jama Masjid seen from Dariba Kalan in the 1860s. THE ALKAZI COLLECTION OF PHOTOGRAPHY
01 November, 2010

ROLAND BARTHES ONCE WROTE that photography started out by photographing the notable, but soon it decreed notable whatever it photographed. Almost all the images in Historic Delhi: Early Explorations of the Camera c. 1860-1950, the Alkazi Foundation’s newest exhibition of vintage photographs, belong to that truly early era, when the camera was still understood as something meant only to capture the momentous, the monumental or, at the very least, the exotic. Which is probably why, to our jaded 21st-century eyes, these pictures seem, at first glance, somewhat dull. As Susan Sontag already understood in On Photography (1977), “[t]he image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs.”

It is a difficult task to imagine in 2010 how magical it must have been to see, circa 1880, the Jama Masjid as one saw it every day from Dariba Kalan, or the Red Fort on a wintry morning, captured in silver and grey, frozen into permanent two-dimensional form. It is particularly difficult at a time when the many channels of the ceaseless image-production machine—hoardings, tourist brochures, newspaper supplements, television channels—bombard us (or at least those of us who live in Delhi) with images of these very structures, almost challenging the eye not to see them as clichés. And yet, if one gives them a chance, some of the Historic Delhi images can make the same things appear utterly fresh. Sometimes it is the mental double-take as the eye recognises some element that has remained constant in a space otherwise almost entirely transformed. Sometimes it is the starkness of the composition, the frame empty of everything except the building—a building we may have seen a million times, but never without people. The gleaming whiteness of the Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah in Samuel Bourne’s image from 1865, or Humayun’s Tomb in an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) photograph from 1923-4, for example, appear almost eerily unmarked by human presence—or time.

What is the visual pleasure one might get from such an image? It is the opposite of that which one usually derives from old things—rather than presenting us with the comforting patina of age, the old photograph magically strips away layers of time to reveal an object that is almost unbelievably pristine.

This ability to conjure up a slice of the past, to make it seem as concrete, as specific, as real as everything we

see around us in the present—this is the unique power of

the photograph. But it is a double-edged sword. Photography constantly seeks to capture the present, but by virtue

of having captured it, imbues that present with pastness. And like modernity itself, while it seeks to preserve

what is past, it is irrevocably embroiled in the disapp- earance of that past.

The history of early photography everywhere is entwined with the history of vanishing peoples and customs. Sontag puts it sharply, as always: “From the start, photographers not only set themselves the task of recording a disappearing world, but were so employed by those hastening its disappearance.” If colonial era anthropologists everywhere, from the Americas to Africa, saw it as crucial to photograph the traditional life-worlds they were studying, urban photography in the 19th century sought to enshrine a fast-changing Paris and London. In the Indian context, of course, photography was hardly independent of the colonial apparatus. Much has been written about its connections to the machinery of military and administrative expansion, as well as the fixing of colonised identities into a frozen ethnographic present—even as the world being fixed in images was being transformed by the same colonial processes.

There is now also a growing body of writing that examines photography’s role in the recording and preserving of historic buildings. The legendary French conservationist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc commissioned a series of daguerrotypes of Notre Dame Cathedral before he began his controversial restoration in 1842. In colonial India, too, accurately depicting the extent of decay—the pre-restoration photographwas seen as the first step in bringing a building’s state to wider notice, and thus preserving it. There was also the post-restoration photograph. Official records were thus created in what we might now refer to as ‘Before and After’ mode. The Alkazi exhibition presents us with at least three such images from the ASI, all immaculately composed, and bereft of people: the impressively Ozymandias-like ‘Entrance to Purana Qila before restoration, Delhi, 1914’; the earlier mentioned ‘Humayun’s Tomb with restored Tank and Gardens, Delhi, 1923-4’ and ‘Tomb of Illtutmish, c.1915,’ showing the interior in splendid detail. There are also images here that belong to a related tradition, ‘the picturesque.’ An artistic style that evolved in 18th-century Europe and became a staple of colonial representation, the picturesque composition involved landscapes with classical buildings, preferably in a state of ruin, preferably overrun by vegetation, and—unlike the scientific architectural photograph, which was almost always devoid of people—a few human figures visible at a distance, preferably ragged. The famous photograph of Flagstaff Tower, Delhi, taken in 1858-9 by Felice Beato and included in this exhibition, is in this mould. Although it is too soon after the 1857 revolt for the building to be overgrown, there are visible cannon holes in the wall and doors and a boundary wall swiftly turning to rubble—as well as three carefully positioned natives, their faces in shadow.

It has been argued that such images, with their emphasis on a glorious past and a ruinous present, worked to legitimise a colonial narrative of civilisational transition. Whether you find this convincing or not, it is impossible to ignore the startling emptiness of these frames, and the strangely controlled human presence. In the first of three Chandni Chowk images, a moustachioed man looks calmly into the camera. In the second, taken by Samuel Bourne, the three men mid-frame have clearly been told to stay there and stand still. The third is the oddest: the shadows are strong and the streets deserted, except for a single figure perched on a buffalo. An odd image to create, surely, of what had to have been the busiest bazaar in the city?

But perhaps all this is barking up the wrong tree, and all that the picture testifies to is the shimmering heat of a Delhi summer afternoon, people hiding from the sun which glints off the buffalo’s back. And there are, indeed, simpler pleasures to be derived here. One smiles happily to oneself at the bamboo trellises around planted saplings and cement enclosures around them, their concrete particularity turning this unfamiliar black and white city into one we know. An ASI image of the Diwan-i-Khas, circa 1880, shows the fort shorn of all its splendid lived grandeur—there are none of the furnishings that must have existed even 25 years previous. This is cleverly juxtaposed with an image from 1913-4, called ‘Recreated Mughal Room, Khwabgah,’ which marks an experiment where Mughal palaces in Delhi, Lahore and Agra were restored and refurbished under the ASI’s John Marshall. In a different part of the exhibition is a photograph from an in-between decade: the Red Fort lit by electric lights, looking incongruously like a ballroom—apparently taken just before the arrival of the guests at Curzon’s Delhi Durbar, 1903.

A preliminary thought that might bear considering: the colonial-era images we see here seem to contain either the rigidly controlled two or three locals, or else move full scale into the realm of the crowd. The most impressive of these crowd pictures is of people gathered outside the Jama Masjid during the 1877 Durbar: a vast assemblage of humans surrounded by their camel carts, bael gadis and innumerable buffaloes, and the mosque rising up at the back, every available parapet overflowing with people. One whole section, in fact, is devoted to the three Delhi Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911. Most of these images—the vast tent cities, or the king and queen on an elephant—are staid depictions of the notable, a la Barthes. But there are exceptions. One such is the photograph of the Begum of Bhopalarriving at the 1911 Durbar, which is arresting for many reasons. First, it is among the few images in the exhibition with a person in the foreground, occupying at least a third of the frame. But more than that, it is that the woman striding purposefully toward us is completely veiled. All eyes are upon her, within the frame and without, but her expression, even the look in her eyes, will forever remain a mystery. In ‘Elephant Being Howdahed, 1911-2,’ a huge crowd of attendants is gathered around the poor patient beast, with only two men actually involved in fixing the howdah. It is a sharp visual commentary on the vast scale of (probably largely unnecessary) labour that kept the Raj running.

The mid-20th century section is relatively dull, redeemed only by some splendid photographs taken (separately) by Homai and Maneckshaw Vyarawalla. While Homai’s ‘Christmas Day Celebrations, 1947,’ with its grinning crowds in Connaught Place, satisfies one’s latent desire for a celebratory post-Independence moment, it is Maneckshaw’s lovely Jantar Mantar image from 1945 that seems to offer the perfect response to the constrictedness of all the earlier monument images. Two women in ghunghats descend the Jantar Mantar staircase, while at the far end of the lawn two figures in sola topis—policemen?—walk away from us. The monument is still very much centre-stage, but the women are neither dwarfed nor alienated by it. It is not a space they are likely to have been in before, and neither the building nor the stately rows of palm trees offers any shade from the sun—yet they seem, somehow, entirely at home.