Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017
Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017 is a special exhibition at the Science Museum, commemorating 70 years of Independence and is part of the British Council's UK-India Year of Culture. This ambitious survey documents the use of photography in the subcontinent and how it portrayed as well as perceived pivotal events in history including the Mutiny of 1857 and Partition and Independence in 1947. The exhibition is arranged in 6 sections: ‘The Mutiny’, ‘Photography, Power and Performance’, ‘Early Colour’, ‘Independence and Partition’, ‘Modern India’ and ‘Contemporary’. The exhibition is drawn from multiple collections, notably the British Library and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, as well as works from contemporary photographers including Vasantha Yogananthan and Sohrab Hura. The British Library has lent 15 individual photographs and albums which are featured in the first two sections of the exhibition. A few of the highlights are discussed in this blog post.
Felice Beato's six part panorama of Lucknow, one of the principal sites of the atrocities of the Mutiny, is featured in the start of the exhibition. Beato, a war photographer, went to India to document the aftermath of the Mutiny and arrived in Lucknow in March 1858. He photographed many of the destroyed buildings including the Sikandra Bagh, a poignant photo that featured the remains of Indian soldiers in the foreground. Beato also photographed several panoramic views of the city, including this one picturing the courtyard of the Kaisarbagh from the Roshan-ud-Daula Kothi. This once magnificent palace complex was only completed in 1852 just a few years before the uprisings, for local ruler Wajid Ali Shah. The Kaisarbagh was designed by Ahmad Ali Khan, an architect who would learn about photographic process from a British solider and be appointed as the official court photographer.
Khan learned to produce both daguerreotypes and photographic prints. His photographs are well documented in the British Library's collection. One of the earliest photographs featured in the exhibition and from our collection includes a portrait of Nawab Raj Begum Sahibah of Oudh, the daughter of the King Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh, taken in c. 1855. Khan obtained permission from the King to take portraits of his wide and the ladies of the court (Gordon 2010, 148-9). The Library’s collection also includes Ahmad Ali Khan’s portrait of the King of Oudh and his wife (BL Photo 500).
The exhibition features works by both commercial photographers, Indian and British, as well as amateur photographers. In regards to the Mutiny, two works by Major Robert Christopher Tytler and his wife Harriet are featured in this section. Tytler was in the Bengal Army and both he and his wife were in Delhi during the siege. He learned the art of photography and printing from both Felice Beato and John Murray in 1858. They took more than 500 photographs of sites associated with the Mutiny. In Lucknow they photographed the Macchi Bhavan, a fortress that would ultimately disappear by the 1890s, and the decaying splendour of the Chaulakhi gateway into the Kaiserbagh palace.
[View of the principal gateway into the Kaiserbagh, Lucknow.] by Robert and Harriet Tytler, 1858. BL Photo 193(22)
The exhibition also features works by John Murray, documenting the sites of Cawnpore and Delhi in the aftermath of the Mutiny, including the Sutter Ghat or the Sati Chaura Ghat, where there was a major massacre of Europeans who attempted to flee down river by boats to Allahabad and were shot by sepoys on 27 June 1857. The final and perhaps one of the most iconic images from our collection, that of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah II, awaiting trail in 1858, before he was sent to exile in Burma, is featured in this section.
In the second section, 'Photography, Power and Performance', photographs from the British Library document the imperial grandeur of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon's tours of India in 1899 and 1902. Our presentation album, 'HE Lord Curzon's first tour in India, 1899' includes photographs of visits, receptions and ceremonies at Delhi, Bombay, Bhopal, Sanchi, Gwalior, Agra, Sikandra, Fatehpur Sikri, Mathura, Vrindavan, Kanpur, Lucknow and Varanasi. Included on display are the iconic images of Lord and hunting tigers and their trophies.
The exhibition also features a section the use of photography as a medium to document anthropology and ethnography as demonstrated through the J. Forbes Watson's The People of India (an eight volume study rooted in imperialist ideology) and William Johnson, The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay, 1863.
Full-length seated portrait of Shah Jahan Begum (1858-1930), daughter of Sikander Begum and herself Begum of Bhopal 1901-26. BL Photo 355/9(33) - also published in The People of India, by James Waterhouse, 1862.
Additional photographs on loan to the Science Museum include:
An illustrated historical album of the Rajas and Taaluqdars of Oudh (Allahabad, 1880), compiled and illustrated by Darogah Haji Abbas Ali, Government Pensioner, late Municipal Engineer, BL Photo 987.
The Lucknow album (Calcutta, 1874), compiled and photographed by Darogha Abbas Ali, BL Photo 988.
Shikar party [Lord Curzon and party posed with dead tiger beneath shooting platform near Nekonda, Warangal District, Hyderabad] by Lala Deen Dayal, April 1902. BL Photo 556/3(67)
Their Excellencies on jhoola [Lord Curzon taking aim from a shooting platform in a tree, near Nekonda, Warangal District, Hyderabad] by Lala Deen Dayal, April 1902. BL Photo 556/3(65)
India: pioneering photographers 1850-1900, by John Falconer (London, 2001)
India through the lens. Photography 1840-1911, edited by Vidya Dehejia, ( Washington DC, 2000)
The coming of photography in India, by Christopher Pinney (London 2008)
Traces of India: photography, architecture, and the politics of representation, 1850-1900, edited by Maria Antonella Pelizzari (Montreal, 2003)
Lucknow: City of Illusion, ed. Rosie Llewllyn-Jones (Delhi, 2008)
'A sacred interest: the role of photography in the city of mourning' by Sophie Gordon in India's fabled city, the art of courtly Lucknow (Los Angeles, 2010)
Visual Arts Curator