What these rare images of 19th-century India tell us about colonial rule

Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

The story of photography in 19th-century India is the tale of a new technological age.

As cameras arrived in port cities from Europe in the late 1840s, photo studios began spreading throughout the country. Members of the British Raj also extensively cataloged the people, cultures, landscapes, buildings and wildlife they encountered on the subcontinent.

There is, however, a darker side to the medium’s history. Photography may be one of the great inventions of the era, but it was also widely used as a propaganda tool by colonial elites, according to Nathaniel Gaskell, co-founder and associate director of the Museum of Art and Photography in Bangalore.

A photograph from around 1860 shows ruins near the Taj Mahal. India was often depicted as a crumbling former empire in “need of intervention,” according to the author of a new book. Credit: John Murray

This troubling history forms part of Gaskell’s wide-ranging new book “Photography in India,” which was co-authored with University College London PhD scholar, Diva Gujral. From ethnographic photos that reinforced racist stereotypes, to portraits depicting colonial officers as Western saviors, images in the pair’s book reflect many of the ideologies underpinning the British colonial mission.

“You have to realize that everything, even photos of buildings, were taken with an agenda,” Gaskell said in a phone interview. “They were making India look (like) a place that was in need of intervention.

“It was not meant to be shown as a grand former empire, but as these crumbling ruins. And that slightly dictates the way pictures were taken, and, therefore, their academic value isn’t purely objective.”

Implicit agenda

The case for intervention was also made through depictions of living conditions in India, according to the book’s co-author, Gujral. By way of example, she points to photos of the Madras famine in the 1870s, which were produced specifically for newspapers back in Britain.

Images of famine were intended to help justify expansion into India, but they sometimes took on new and unintended meanings.

An image from an 1860s photo album entitled “The oriental races and tribes, residents and visitors of Bombay.” Credit: Courtesy The Rajeev Rawat Collection, Jaipur

“These photos fall into this idea of the ‘chaotic East’ — images that (promoted a Western idea that) the East ‘needed’ it,” she said on the phone. “But when they were released to the London press, what they actually generated was a series of public groups very concerned by the fact that famine still existed. (People) were saying, ‘This is exactly what you went out there to fix, so how have you not fixed it already? And if you’re not intending to, what are you doing?’

“So there are moments when the images absolutely backfired.”

When it comes to landscapes, however, the photographic aesthetic was often one of order, not chaos. Rather than depicting far-off lands as untamed or untouched, India’s dramatic mountains and tropical flora were frequently made to resemble bucolic scenes from the English countryside.

This, too, reflected Britain’s goal of spreading outwards, said Gaskell, who described the practice as “a kind of taming of the landscape.”

“I see this as a further extension of ownership and legitimizing (colonial) presence, because it’s showing (India) as this great garden of England,” he continued. “It’s mad to think that they were photographing the Himalayas as if they were Gloucestershire.”

India was often depicted to resemble the English countryside — “a kind of taming of the landscape,” as Gaskell put it. Credit: British Library Board

But while the book’s images often reflect explicit propaganda efforts (Gaskell also cites grand processions published in British newspapers to show the “pomp and ceremony” of the Raj), many simply document dominant attitudes of the day.

“I think some of it was conscious, but photographs also reflect the time they were taken in, and the prevailing mindset,” he added. “I don’t think photographers were sitting down with spin doctors saying, ‘We need to make it look like this.’ But I think, inevitably, that’s what happened.”

A distinct aesthetic

Despite the political undertones, colonial India’s early cameras were also used for relatively mundane purposes: art, postcards or keepsakes. Photography sometimes served very practical roles, too. Some of the first images to be captured in the country were taken by the British army and civil service to speed up record-keeping.

“They were replacing drawings as a way of describing monuments, for instance,” said Gaskell. “And that’s why you get these big catalogs of, literally, a whole building, with every stone or detail recorded. It made things much faster than having a whole team of draftsmen.”

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The spread of portrait studios is another important development in photography on the subcontinent — one that wasn’t driven solely by the imperial elite. In the latter half of the 19th century, Indian royals, the merchant classes and other wealthy individuals would also have family pictures taken, “much in the same way as the British did,” said Gaskell.

Local photographers were also active from the medium’s earliest days. They helped give Indian photography a distinct aesthetic, inspired by the country’s own artistic traditions. This is particularly evident in the use of hand coloration, Gaskell said, which transformed monochrome images into vibrant artworks.

“Hand-coloring of photographs is something that also happened in Japan and China,” he said. “But in India it was a much thicker application of paint that almost completely concealed the image. You’d get gold leaf painted directly on, so there’d be almost none of the original photograph visible.

A portrait from the 1890s demonstrating a tendency in India to paint heavily over photographs. Credit: Courtesy the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

“Sometimes, people would go to the studio to have their photos taken, then the family’s (faces) would be pasted into a completely made-up landscape. So it was really pushing what photography was.”

Yet, the local tradition can not be entirely removed from its colonial context. Take the Indian photographer Narayan Dajee, one of the few non-white members of the Bombay Photographic Society, who was also involved in taking ethnographic pictures that may have helped propagate racial theories.

His work was, according to Gujral, often indistinguishable from that of his European contemporaries.

An image by Indian photographer Narayan Dajee, one of the few non-white members of the Bombay Photographic Society, from around 1860. Credit: Courtesy The Rajeev Rawat Collection, Jaipur

“One of the myths we try and debunk, when we’re dealing with ethnography and colonial science in the book, is the idea that all the photos were taken by colonizers,” she said. “This style and mode of photographing becomes something that Indian practitioners are doing too.

“Understanding the images is not always to do with who’s sponsoring them or where they’re going to wind up, it’s an aesthetic that is diffused. So we try to counter the idea that it’s the British who are taking these very stark, scientific images and the Indians who are heartily painting over everything. It’s somewhere in the middle.”

Photography in India,” published by Prestel, is available now.

This article originally appeared here