Retouched by a myriad dreams

Camera Indica
December 26, 1997

An advert in the Calcutta Statesman of September 21 1889 offering for sale a photograph of a legendary dacoit (robber) stated: "Tantia Bhil has been photographed 1. In jail clothing, handcuffed to two policemen. 2. In the attire in which he was captured, in company with a member of his gang." It was common for the British to send home photo cards of such exotic Indian characters. The pictures, taken mainly by Europeans, projected an alien's view of the subcontinent. Christopher Pinney's book offers, to some extent, a contrasting view. He has tried to chart the changing photographic scene in India over a century and a half, with a focus on Nagda, a small industrial town between Delhi and Bombay.

"This book is an attempt to consider questions such as the relationship between photographic and a wider cultural practice, the different kinds of work that the 'face' and the 'body' are required to do within different photographic traditions, the different ways in which photography comes to be privileged as evidence of internal and external states, and how the particular visual reality associated with particular places comes to be so constituted," Pinney states in his preface.

Within ten years of the invention of photography by Fox Talbot in 1830, Indians had used it to record all kinds of social experiences. Old family albums in Indian homes are still regularly served up to visitors with a garnish of enthusiastic, anecdotal commentary bearing the hallmark of a story-telling tradition. A predisposition to attribute stories to images defines the Indian psyche and is thus a worthwhile subject of cultural study. This gentle book, in spite of its over-use of jargon, conjures up images of delight, wit and poignancy. The author conveys how the pursuit of photography in India has become something that reaches beyond the mundane to the magical.

In the first chapter, Pinney discusses how the early colonisers obsessively trusted photography to impose a sense of order on a chaotic country. Chapter two deals with its development among Indians, from its elitist roots as a pursuit for maharajas to its wide availability as promoted by professional street photographers.

The chapter entitled "Chambers of dreams" describes how in the tiny and meagre studios of Nagda the skills to create and sustain a make-believe reality flourish. Photographers there can make a dead person's face come alive by retouching and over-painting a portrait, so as to comfort the bereaved family. They can transport a peddler on the street to the Taj Mahal with a painted backdrop and leave him there for posterity. They can produce a souvenir for any man of an intimate interaction with his Bollywood fancy-woman by using her image in cardboard cut-out.

However, one would expect a book dealing with the "Social life of Indian photographs" to contain at least some reference to female photographers. Within a year of the founding by Europeans of the first photographic society in Bengal in 1856 (following the first such society in India, which began in Bombay in 1854), the society had acquired a substantial number of Bengali members. The journal published by this society held competitions and encouraged women to take up photography. Around 1870, Rabindranath Tagore's sister-in-law, the wife of his elder brother (the first Indian member of the Indian civil service, known for his advanced views on female emancipation), took lessons in photography from the celebrated Bourne and Shepherd company of Calcutta and photographed the women in her household, including Rabindranath's mother, who remained in purdah all her life. That photograph is a remarkable piece of social history; there must be many similar examples from other parts of India. In 1898, a photographic studio was being run by an enterprising Bengali lady (Sarojini Ghosh) who not only specialised in making bromide enlargements, platinotypes and photographs on silks but also sold photographic chemicals.

Hence this book is not as comprehensive as one might assume from its subtitle. This may be due to the fact that photography in India is too diverse to be represented by a single small-town case study. The book's real achievement lies in its celebration of resourcefulness and vitality evident in the small art studios in Indian towns and in its documentation of how with the use of very basic cameras and simple skills such as over-painting, collage, double-printing and so on, photography in India created a myriad dreams for the Indian masses long before electronic means - digital retouching and image manipulation using sensors and software - caught the world's wildest fantasy. India, too, is rapidly progressing towards virtual reality, its film industry already using as well as exporting some wonderful programme packages.

Camera Indica is well referenced, contains a select bibliography and a useful glossary of Hindi words. The 130 illustrations are skilfully chosen and beautifully printed. Although some of the black-and-white photographs have appeared elsewhere, they do not suffer from a second look. Pinney's book lovingly preserves a gradually disappearing aesthetic manifestation for future anthropologists and cultural historians of India.

Krishna Dutta is a scholar specialising in Bengali culture.

Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs

Author - Christopher Pinney
ISBN - 1 86189 006 0
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £16.95
Pages - 240

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