As dusk settled into the horizon, we moved towards discussing the bygone eras of India. The atmosphere was fitting, the excitement subsided and the gathering calmly awaited the perspectives that cameras had captured of our pasts.
We missed Mr. William Darlympole’s perspectives on painted records of the past due to his unfortunate absence during the session. However, Ms. Alka Pande very comfortably filled in his shoes and took us through the visuals captured by the colonial camera. Until this session, I believed cameras to be impartial to the subject. There are only so many ways in which you could capture the truth in the past. We didn’t have photoshop after all! But the biases underlying each shot were very skillfully addressed by Ms. Pande. She brought to the spotlight the idea of colonial documentary. Unlike documentaries today, which delve into multiple imagery, photographers relied on single image documentaries to describe and tell the story of a given location, architecture, or people, colonial photographers in particular always brought a glaringly obvious view to their art- The white gaze. The white gaze looked at exotic elements with such an object of scrutiny that they no longer remained as organic elements. They reduced people to objects and human culture to hollow architecture.
With great finesse and detail she took us through slides of old photographs, described styles, tones, colours, and distinct individual styles of capturing a frame. We were able to witness the works of renowned British Era artists like John Murray, Cuthbert Christy’s Album of India, Watson and Kaye’s The People of India or the works of Baker and Burke through the 19th century.
When describing Kaye’s People of India, with quite disdain and distaste, Ms. Pande went on to describe the chronicling of tribes and the real objectification of nativity in India. The pictures were staged to capture the naked Indian in shades of brown, with distinct features and characteristics used to describe exotic species. This lack of empathy was integral to the white man’s gaze.
However, we also witnessed an Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal’s works. He documented the opulence of the British colonial era more compassionately. His pictures were as exotic and removed from everyday British reality. His photographs were also heavily staged. However, the dynamics portrayed were familial dynamics. The architecture was displayed with pride, royalty were depicted in full glory, and the settings were picturesque.
Through this vivid imagery, the Q&A also took a turn towards the inter cultural influences in art. With India’s enormous past and multicultural influence, no art form could be claimed to be purely Indian. We have embraced hybridity in expression. Irrespective of the lens that perceived our past two centuries, the documentation of biases that has accompanied physical documentation has added a wealth of perspective to our understanding of colonial India.
About the Author: Deepika Aiyer is a 20 year old Literature Fest enthusiast who looks forward to being blown away by new ideas, opinions, and schools of thought. She currently writes for TheSeer.