Photographing India: colonialism, struggle and freedom

The Science Museum’s photography exhibition is an in-depth and sensitive look at the colonial origins of the medium in India and traces its development to current times

This year marks 70 years of India’s independence from the British. The Science Museum in London is commemorating this landmark with two exhibitions. Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation highlights notable inventions made by Indian scientists while Photography 1857 – 2017 traces the origins and growth of photography in India.

Some of the oldest anthropological imagery made in India, Illuminating India Photography 1857 – 2017 © Science Museum Group

1857 seemed like a fitting starting point for the exhibition because of its importance in India’s colonial history. This was the year of the first organised uprising of soldiers or Sepoy Mutiny; the first time the people of India came together to revolt against foreign rule.

Shasti Lowton, assistant curator of the exhibition, says: “If we put this [the uprising] into context with photography’s arrival in India, which came shortly after its invention in Britain in 1839, it is easy to see how this quickly became a tool for the British military and colonial administrators to dominate and document the people, architecture and landscape of the country.”

Bourne Shepherd-Photographers to H.E. The Viceroy Calcutta D.L. Udaipur Mewar Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur 1849-1930 c. 1876 1900 © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

A lot of the show’s earlier photography, shot in the decades following the uprising, is by British photographers who travelled to India. This outsider perspective is evident in the anthropological curiosity with which the Indian landscape and its people are represented. But agitation among Indians and their resistance to foreign rule meant that the Indian people were no longer regarded simply as docile subjects but an active threat to the empire.

This is evident in the way that Indians and Indian life is documented. “For foreign photographers working in India around the time of the rebellion, the medium gave them the opportunity to produce photographs that could fulfil the British public’s desire to memorialise soldiers slain abroad, as well as satisfy their curiosity for images of the ‘exotic treasures’ that India held, including her people,” explains Lowton.


Court Photographer UnknownArtist Maharaja Venkat Raman Singh of Rewa 1876-1918,1899 ©-Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

What’s particularly interesting is how Indians themselves began to use the medium. One of the earliest examples shown in the exhibition is a collection of guidebooks featuring images shot by Darogha Haji Abbas Ali. Aware of western curiosity about India, the photographs (created for tourism) demonstrate a reversal of this gaze. The artist objectifies his own people and land, pandering to western expectations of exoticism.

“At first (probably due to the expense of equipment and materials), photography was only available to those that could be considered privileged, either via wealth or connections,” explains Lowton. This is evident in the wealth of court photography shown in the exhibition, most of which was shot during the late 19th century in Indian palaces.

The influence of royal Victorian portraiture is visible in the way that subjects dress and pose with markers of wealth and status. The exhibition includes some stunning mixed medium portraits, where black and white photographs are painted over with watercolours and embellished with gold – an exquisite example of how the court photography format was adapted to serve the Indian aesthetic.

Delhi Birla House 1948. Nehru announces Gandhi’s assassination to a crying crowd © Henri Cartier-Bresson Magnum Photos

Photography in the middle of the twentieth century takes a political turn, as the struggle for independence reaches a crescendo. There are some fine examples of photojournalism from this time, both by western photographers like Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and their Indian contemporaries Sunil Janah and Homai Vyarawalla (regarded as the first female Indian photojournalist). On view are some powerful images from the night India declared itself independent and from Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral.

The equal representation of women photographers – both Indian and British – is noteworthy. Though perhaps not representative of reality, the choice to balance contributions from men and women photographers in the exhibition deserves praise.

Homai Vyarawalla Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House Delhi 15 August 1947 © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Post independence, the subject matter changes drastically. There is more work by Indian photographers, but more importantly the aesthetic and thematic influence of Britain seems to fade. With photography becoming more accessible, photographers begin to celebrate more mundane and everyday aspects of Indian life.

“The subject matters definitely became more diverse as the technology became accessible to India’s middle classes. This will become apparent as you move through the exhibition,” Lowton explains.

Young Warriors Sitamarhi Uttar Pradesh India 2015 from the series A Myth of Two Souls 2013 © Vasantha Yogananthan

The show ends on a powerful note with three strong bodies of work by contemporary photographers. Vasantha Yogananthan reinterprets the Ramayana, looking for scenes from the epic in everyday Indian life. Even without any knowledge of the story, this series is a visual treat; the lush colours of India dampened by the desert haze. British Magnum photographer Olivia Arthur takes a raw look at the LGBT community, exploring themes of intimacy, loneliness and repression. Lastly, Sohrab Hura, also a Magnum photographer, exhibits a tender and heartening series about his mother’s struggle with schizophrenia.

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay. 2016 © Olivia Arthur Magnum Photos

Illuminating India: Photography 1857 – 2017 is an expertly curated exhibition. Its 140 images take viewers on a carefully and sensitively crafted journey – but the real hero is the medium of photography and its power to preserve history, tell stories and empower both artist and subject.


Illuminating India is a free exhibition on view from October 4 2017 to March 31 2018. See sciencemuseum.org.uk for details.

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