Via John Laxmi, the NY Times review of two photo exhibitions based on India, at Yale University.
October 31, 2003
THE NEW YORK TIMES
ART REVIEW | ‘TRACES OF INDIA’; ‘Company Culture’
Composing Indian History, One Carefully Framed View at a Time
By HOLLAND COTTER
NEW HAVEN – Life happens, but history is made, as in invented, cooked up. You blend together events, people and places, stir in ideology, and presto, you have a docudrama version of reality. The truth is in the mix somewhere.
Art, in its role as visual history, naturally shares this formula, most obviously in history painting, commemorative sculpture, religious and political architecture. They are all out to sell a point of view, and the more inventively or insistently they do so, the readier we are to overlook the manipulation or buy the message.
Few art forms are as magnetic as photography. None can record more faithfully or dissemble more convincingly. This paradox is the impetus behind two finely chiseled exhibitions at the Yale Center for British Art, “Traces of India: Photography, Architecture and the Politics of Representation,” and the smaller, complementary “Company Culture.”
Both are visual essays, think pieces. If you are allergic to such things, can’t bear to read wall labels, or are firm in a belief that art speaks for itself, you might not consider the larger show to be an art exhibition at all. But if you’re comfortable with an expository format and have the time and energy to engage with – which doesn’t necessarily mean agree with – the show’s arguments, there is a lot for you here, not least dozens of extraordinary images.
The story the two shows share begins with a historical coincidence: the invention of photography and the consolidation of British rule in India in the first half of the 19th century. The monopolistic merchant corporation called the East India Company, under the auspices of the British government, had been on the subcontinent for 200 years. The company initially came to buy spices and silks, but soon took over the shop. Britain supplied troops to protect its interests, and India was paternalistically embraced as part of the fabric of a greater Britain.
As part of this proprietorial arrangement (and as a way to make it popular at home), British artists were enlisted to capture the subcontinent in images. And their role is examined in “Company Culture,” a smart introductory show gleaned from the Yale Center’s collection and organized by Morna O’Neill, a doctoral candidate in Yale’s art history department.
Among the first arrivals in the late 18th century were William Hodges and the uncle-nephew team of Thomas and William Daniell, and they came with conflicted agendas. Although their job was documentary, even quasi-scientific, they were landscape painters steeped in the Romantic tradition. Not surprisingly, they filtered their new and overpoweringly exotic subject through a Romantic lens, softening and domesticating it. They also brought to it a distinct gloss with a built-in contradiction, depicting India as a classically timeless culture but one in sad decline.
Timelessness – the notion that the best ancient Indian art and architecture corresponded to a Keatsian ideal of imperishable beauty – suited British needs: it confirmed that India was indeed worthy of acquisition. The concept of decline had uses, too, justifying a protective stewardship and turning India into a vast museum filled with relics of better days.
India’s architectural monuments, at once sublime and picturesquely crumbling away, offered evidence for both bolsters of the imperial ideal. And photography, with its vaunted objectivity, was well suited to conveying them. This is where “Traces of India,” organized by Maria Antonella Pelizzari, a former associate curator in the photographs collection at the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, picks up the historical thread.
The medium, with its reputation as a mechanical recording device, unprejudiced, all-seeing, held instant appeal for the era’s equivalent of art historians, intent on collecting, archiving and codifying India’s elite ancient culture.
Pioneering archaeologists of South Asia like Alexander Cunningham, James Fergusson and James Burgess were enterprising and in many ways admirable men, who came to their task from unlikely backgrounds. Fergusson, for example, was an indigo planter who picked up archaeology out of sheer curiosity, and went on to uncover some of the greatest Indian Buddhist monuments. He was an enthusiastic proponent of photography as a scientific instrument, and back in England he researched portions of his highly influential books from photographs alone, often of sites he had never seen.
One section of the show is made up almost entirely of early pictures of archaeological sites, and they are thrilling. Sculptures now long since housed in museums seem to be sprouting straight from the earth; details of their carving come through with electrifying clarity. The photographers themselves – among them Linnaeus Tripe and later Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and John Murray – worked with prodigious diligence.
Tripe recorded, in a series of 21 pictures, joined end to end in a scroll, an inscription running around the entire base of an important Hindu temple in South India. His undertaking, technologically awesome given the primitive equipment he was working with, seems to have been entirely self-assigned. It is also thanks to him that we have pictures – a few are in the show – of sculptural reliefs from the Buddhist stupa of Amaravati. He took them in 1858; a year later a group of these fabulous objects were sent to London, where, left outdoors on a wharf for a year, some of them were half-obliterated by the English weather and Victorian air pollution.
Apart from the Amaravati material, though, most Indian monumental art and architecture reached England in the form of photographic reproduction. And images like Beato’s immaculately composed views of the Taj Mahal, and Murray’s radiant three-part panoramic shot of the Moti Masjid, or Pearl Mosque, in the Agra Fort, inspired a vogue for Indian tourism, yet another form of invoking proprietary privilege.
Also with the aid of photographs, Britain concocted at-home adaptations of Indian design. Architectural forms – particularly those associated with the Mughals, Britain’s imperial predecessors in South Asia – turned up in public buildings like the Royal Pavilion at Brighton and in festive spectacles like the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. In India itself, meanwhile, the British were designing government buildings in so-called Anglo-Indian style, with each new example duly recorded by the camera for international viewing.
But by midcentury, long-simmering anti-British sentiment in India exploded in a popular revolt that the British referred to as the Mutiny of 1857. Many soldiers and civilians, British and Indian, died in the conflict, and overnight the political climate in India changed. A retributive British government grew more controlling, and architectural photography found a new role as part of a propaganda campaign to promote images of British valor and Indian treachery.
Places where Britons had been killed were converted into shrines, their sanctity perpetuated and broadcast in pictures. In an infamous example of staged history, British military might was extolled in a photograph by Beato of the ruins of the Sikandar Bagh Palace in Lucknow, where 2,000 rebel Indian soldiers had been killed. Beato arrived on the scene a year after the battle. But to recreate its flavor, he had the remains of the rebels disinterred and scattered around the courtyard for the shoot.
>From that point on, the British Raj itself went into decline and ended, to assume a dramatized life in photographs, memoirs and “Masterpiece Theater.” And an independent India took charge of its own history, past and present, sometimes delineating it in part through ideologically charged representations of architecture.
The Taj Mahal sustained its Romantic allure: Indian movie stars and rock groups continue to pose in front of it. The Red Fort in Delhi, once a Mughal stronghold, became a symbol of the new nation, as illustrated in a school textbook picture from the 1970’s in which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addresses a crowd from the fort’s ramparts while resistance heroes from earlier eras hover protectively in the sky.
Although many elements in this image are photographically derived, they are joined together as a painting in which naturalistic scale is off kilter and visionary events are treated naturalistically. In post-Independence India the role of documentary photography changed somewhat, at least officially. As the historian Partha Chatterjee notes in the indispensable catalog to “Traces of India,” Indians preferred to present historical events and cultural symbols in terms associated with sacred art rather than with the “profane realism of photography.”
Increasingly, he suggests, under colonialism Indians came to view the Western concept of reality – based on rationality and exemplified in a linear impulse to organize, categorize, collect and record – as morally problematic and intellectually delusional. Whatever its philosophical underpinnings, however, the politics of representation embedded in architecture and photography, and examined in these illuminating shows, is still operative in India today.
The 1992 destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, built on the supposed site of an ancient Hindu shrine, ignited religious violence that still burns. And three generations of post-Independence Indian photographers – men and women, a mere handful of them known in the West – continue to record, interpret and invent an Indian history, that supremely charged epic that Fergusson described as “written in decay,” and that Rabindranath Tagore, with exquisite theatrical flair, declared resistant to “the cyclonic fury of contradictions and the gravitational pull of the dust.”