While today, we all sport our cameras when we holiday or click family occasions, courtesy digital technology, photography in India actually found its way in the country during the British Empire. In the 1830s, both Talbot and Daguerre had invented processes that involved fixing a positive image that was traced by light. However, the first proto camera advertisement only appeared in a Calcutta newspaper in the 1840s and it wasn’t until the 1850s that the earliest photographs started being made. The purpose of these was initially to document the extent of the empire as well as the desire of the British for an ethnographic reconstruct of the native history and culture, from a colonial perspective. Thereafter, for over a century, photography remained a handy tool for visually recording portrayals of India’s ruling classes and their political achievements, military goals, and the topographical and geographical layout of their territories. Not to be forgotten also was the use of photography by the larger community of professionals from the mother country who utilised photography as a medium for capturing the exotic east, by taking snapshots of ‘natives’ to send back home views of this new-found land, as memoirs and souvenirs.
This medium caught the eye of the locals, particularly the elite, in a narcissistic way. They began to use photographs to reproduce their portraits in much the same way as they had patronised the services of erstwhile miniature painting ustads. But with advancements in photographing techniques, in developing and printing techniques, photography in India got a boost and black and white as well as hand-painted photographs started finding their way. The 1900s saw the advent of ‘family’ and ‘performance’ as a theme in photography. The late Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s self-portraits are as example of these early beginnings.
Meanwhile, the public space of the ‘street’ as a theme was also catching up. The pioneers included Lala Deen Dayal [1844-1905], from Hyderabad and by 1957 we had Praful Patel capturing Mumbai in its public space form. This theme got further enriched by the works of photographer Raghubir Singh who used colour in his work against the grain. The more poetic Raghu Rai infused his vision with the richness of a traveller’s gaze, visible in his lyrical photo essays. While, Pablo Bartholomew found belongingness and intimacy (Outside In) in his friends and family, Ketaki Seth’s work on Mumbai streets or Ram Rehman’s social landscapes of Delhi were examples of the transformation of cities over decades. At the same time, photographers like Dayanita Singh explored inner spaces to show the most photographed city Varanasi, in a different light (I am as I am) while Sheba Chhachhi’s Ganga’s Daughters’ was a yet completely innovative iteration on the much-photographed Kumbh Mela. Then there are photographers like Leena Kejriwal that are exploring the space of the street and city and its objects to mix them with the ‘real’ and have progressed in the objective to recreate a city’s culture in their Babu Biwi series in mixed media. In Ranjit Hoskote’s words, “her eyes dwell on details that form part of everyday life of the thoroughfares…discreet compositions… they assume the role of the still life and become, instead, an occasion to celebrate the vibrancy of the inanimate object…”
Even while photographers were making a mark with their street shots, a shift was definitely visible in the international arena. This was in addition to the space it had already niched for itself at international biennales and at museums by the end of the 1990s. But it had continued to be regarded as a poorer cousin of the art world until the time when it began making an appearance on the global market. This opening was ushered in at the professional photographers’ meet at the Les Rencontres d’Arles, in 2007. That year, the Arles Festival was celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Magnum Photos with an exclusive showing of the works of photographers from India and China, giving Indian photography not just visibility in the art world but also availability in the international auction houses of London, New York and Paris.
Contemporary Indian photography today encompasses diverse works that are in continual dialogue with other forms of art practices including performance, video stills [Sonia Khurana/Bird retake II] and installations. Newer interventions by practitioners of this medium include looking at the outer world from the ‘inside’ [Pablo Bartholomew], or subjecting the self in the public space as a performative act, [Anita Khemka’s self-portraits and Atul Bhalla’s performative work]. Practitioners of this medium have started revisiting spaces [Gauri Gill’s ‘Nizamuddin at Night’ and Bharat Sikka’s bleak urban landscapes in ‘The Space in Between’]. And another practice that was emerging was the engaging theme on the subject of identity and relationship [Sohrab Hura and Sunil Gupta]. Artists like Shivani Aggarwal use photography and paint to convey layers on issues of gender, social and cultural beliefs.
The outlook as regards photography is definitely undergoing a radical shift with different schools of thought co-existing in parallel dimensions. In fact there now exist dedicated photography galleries that are promoting the medium of photography as an art form and finding acceptance among art patrons. This phenomena is happening across the country and not just in certain cities. Indian photographers have also been able to find opportunities in exhibiting at shows such as the Singapore Photo Festival, Chobi Mela [Bangladesh] and the highly acclaimed New York Photo Festival.
The concerns over acceptance of photography as an investment perspective are still unclear. The science to this hasn’t been developed yet; the data not yet enough to draw conclusions, and this is where alternate art mediums score over photography, as investments in those mediums have been huge. But art photography certainly has its compensations. Being a more affordable form of art, it has attracted younger collectors. Also, the committed and serious art collector definitely sets aside a part of his investment for this segment, in order to add to his portfolio, thereby keeping the art photography market upbeat and the photography scene the newest medium for art experimentation and a platform for happening things. The art photography world may be just three calendar years old, but photography as an personal form of expression and as an art form is already in the process of getting recorded.
(with inputs from Curator & Author Radhika Singh)
(Published in ICCR Journal - New Horizons, Oct 2010)