There’s an interesting exhibition of photographs going on at NGMA, Bangalore titled “Dawn Upon Delhi” this month. It is a rich collection of photographs from the 19th and 20th century Delhi, especially of the time when Delhi went on to become “New” Delhi and the three grand ‘assemblages’ called Durbars. The exhibition is curated by Rahaab Allana and I find it remarkable in the way it is presented. Just the right kind of information panels to go with sets of photographs. The information presented adds a precise context or sometimes thought(s) of the people of that time. Two of these caught my attention as I went along:
On a panel titled ‘Photography and the Durbars’
“the image was an essential component of advancing the cause of British rule in India.” – Governor General Lord Mornington
As I read this quote by Lord Mornington I was reminded of a conversation in a political philosophy lecture where the professor asked the class what role did they think photography played in history, if at all one thought that it did play a role. I think it has been a key instrument (much more than a medium) since its invention which could advance a certain kind of narrative, a visual one at that and therefore, inviting more credibility. This narrative was often a carefully staged one and highly subjective. It could be argued that photography has always been so but I’d like to contrast the form practiced by British Empire in India from that of the form that is practiced in a world where no nation is a subject of the other. The difference is striking. While it is still used as an instrument to advance a certain perspective or a way of looking at the world, it is different in its fundamental approach. It doesn’t ‘advance a cause’ in such blatant terms as it did for Lord Mornington. Professional associations and photo agencies today have a code of conduct and have clear standards in place with respect to what does one photograph and how does that get used in print, on web and other avenues. This, in spite of the web technologies which have made production, reproduction and publishing of images so easy and cheaper.
The other piece of information which was intriguing is the following where a “modern” development is talked about-
There had been opposition to the Durbars in the vernacular press from as early as Oct 1876, as it coincided with a famine in Deccan – in western and southern India. Photography as a means of documentation eventually exposed the rampant commercialisation and the concurrent famines during these Durbars. In their pursuit of media attention, Raj policies catalysed another “modern” development: the conflicted relationship between political authorities and a self-regulated autonomous press. No matter how much the authorities herded the crowd and issued traffic pamphlets, the crowd – a mix of classes, nationalities and professions – became an entity and a force that helped determine the trajectories and interpretations of these Durbars. On the other hand, these photographs expressed not only a sense of “order” within the Empire, but also complex and often contradictory beliefs about race, socio-economic culture and history.
This is insightful because in some ways it identifies a period in history where the conflicted relationship between political authorities and an autonomous press might have begun. I couldn’t have traced this relationship back to the time of the 1911 Delhi Durbar. The number of individuals and press agencies covering the Durbar as well as rest of India in early 20th century were a good enough number to be able to present a multi-dimensional view of India and its people. It would have been difficult for the British government to control press in such a landscape. So, while the government went about organizing the Durbar, there were a good lot of independent agencies writing and photographing the Deccan famine. It was only too natural for some of them to contrast the two in their newspapers and periodicals.
What seems interesting about the political events and the press is that there comes a revolution driven by technology (printing press, camera, telephone) which completely alters the way in which events were seen and understood within the country and outside. In a sense, this looks like an ant’s eye view which develops during the first half of 1900s and which gives a complete new understanding of the events, processes and people in the society.
Note: Dawn Upon Delhi (pdf) is a travelling photo exhibition. So do check it out if you happen to be in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata.