THERE IS A STRIKING PHOTOGRAPH by the pioneering photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla at the exhibition of South Asian photography at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. The year is 1961 and the sun shines bright on the crowds at the new steel plants at Durgapur. A quick glance at the curator’s notes and we learn that the crowds are there because Queen Elizabeth II is visiting. And there she is, her plump pale face positioned neatly at the centre of the long-distance shot. But some trick of composition draws the eye away—to the turbaned traffic policeman in front of her car, to the boys at play among the pylons, and to the giant smokestacks towering over them all.
In this photograph, as in history, the old authorities can no longer monopolise the frame. They must make room for other things: industrial modernity, mass democracy, and the fascinating miscellany of everyday life on the subcontinent.
The exhibition—tagline: ‘150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’— starts from “the crucial moment when the power to hold a camera, frame and take images was no longer exclusively the preserve of colonial or European photographers.” This moment of artistic liberation, which came in the second half of the 19th century, made it possible for photographers to tell that other story, of political liberation. The exhibition, which has brought together 400 photographs, has a tumultuous century and a half’s worth of stories to tell—some are familiar, others much less so, and sometimes, many coexist in one frame.