Sound and vision blog

04 March 2010

A glimpse of India

A Glimpse Of India from Cambridge University on Vimeo.

The Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge University has released online a collection of almost 300 films showing life in India and other parts of South Asia during the final days of the British Empire.

The remarkable archive comprises around fifty different private collections made by people who lived and worked in India between 1911 and 1956 and which were originally gathered together in the 1960s. The Centre has been able to digitise the collection and publish only for free access - not only to view, but to download and reuse in education (the films are in QuickTime and you will therefore have to have QuickTime Pro software loaded to be able to download them - it costs £20.00). Each video comes with the message "These images may not be used without licence", but what that licence might be is not stated. But elsewhere it says that you are "free to use this material in the classroom".

The films were all shot silent, by amateurs, so they are the home movies of the British in India. When home movies started to become common in the 1920s and 1930s, with the appearance of non-flammable small gauge 16mm (i.e. smaller than the 35mm film used in cinemas), the cameras and filmstock were still expensive, and it tended to be that such films were taken by the wealthier classes - including those who made up the British Raj. So such films tend to privilege the privileged, though the collection overall is very varied in what it shows and includes scenes shot during the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, images of labourers working on railways, dams and farms, tribal dances and days at the races, children at school and playing, and pictures of the funeral of Lord Brabourne, a former Governor of Bombay and Bengal, in 1939. Colour came to home movies in the 1930s (here on 8mm film), and many of these films reveal a picture of life in India that the monochrome commercials newsreels and travelogues of the period cannot match.

Dr Kevin Greenbank, archivist at the Centre of South Asian Studies, describes the films thus:

It's one thing to get an understanding of a place by reading about it or visiting 60 years later; to be able to see people at the time and watch events such as partition actually taking place before your own eyes is quite another. The films are the equivalent of modern-day home videos. This makes the collection particularly valuable because it shows some of the things which aren't recorded in documents or books - like the interactions between people, or the way that the British behaved towards their servants. It's a fascinating resource for analysing how these two societies, British and Indian, worked - or perhaps didn't work - together.

What you see is India through British eyes - it appears that no films made by Indians exist in the collection, as the names of the families who donated the films indicate: Christie, Hunter, Mackrell, Stokes, Williams, and so on. No information is given on the filmmakers and their personal backgrounds, which is a shame, because such information contextualises what we see and increases the films' value for the social historian. When viewing personal films, it is important know the person just as much as what the person filmed, because there is no such thing as the objective film record. The scholar needs always to ask why one is able to see what one is seeing, to understand the process of mediation. (More background information is promised for later this year)

The films each come with a brief synopsis, plus technical information and indication of location. To view individual films you click on the thumbnails provided. They are utterly engrossing, and the collection will undoubtedly open up South East Asian studies into areas that textual sources just don't cover.

The Centre of South Asian Studies is now seeking funding to link the film collection with its oral history archive, which contains more than 300 recorded interviews and was released online last year.

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