A Dutchman’s toil
Revoking the contributions of Europe and the Raj in heritage conservation.
A Vision of Splendour: Indian Heritage in the Photographs of Jean Philippe Vogel; Gerda Theuns-de Boer, The Kern Institute Collection of Photography, Leiden, Netherlands/Mapin Publications
This is the stuff a David Lean film could have been made on. A Dutch scholar is invited by the British imperial government of India in January 1901. The Netherlands Sanskritist Jean Philippe Vogel joins the A.S.I. as the Superintendent for the Punjab, Baluchistan and Ajmir Circle -- an 800,000 square kilometre region, almost equalling that of present Pakistan in size. There is no archaeological department, no office, not even a single staff member to take charge of, yet the archaeologist records, “a privilege to contribute to the process of passing on India’s monuments in the full splendour of their authenticity.”
White man with a difference
Vogel not only travels to far flung areas and remote outposts of the Raj with a handful of loyal and devoted assistants, but also carries heavy antique photography equipment, including a tented darkroom on horsebacks and even elephants. He was quite literally carrying ‘the white man’s burden!’ But a white man he was with a difference. Unlike some of his British colleagues who had disdain for the Indian heritage and a condescending attitude towards the Indian staff; he had deep respect for both. As a result he often had to act as an intermediary between the two. And he had tremendous support and patronage in Lord Nathaniel Curzon who governed India from January 1899 until August 1905.
As such, A Vision of Splendour is a story of colonial times and a chronological tale of the evolution of the Indian archaeology through vintage photographs, copious notes, field studies and diaries left by Vogel – in short an arresting feast for the eye as well as the curious mind; a panoramic sweep of visual documentation.
The coffee table genre book is elegantly produced and brings out the sweat, toil and joys of painstaking work carried out with quiet aplomb, dedication and the spirit of a scholar-extraordinary, working in remote areas undergoing discomfort, deprivations and inconveniences with fortitude; all in his calling.
The book is divided into six chapters building up the narrative from a recap of the dismal, almost non existent archaeological department and infrastructure of the time Vogel took over to covering the heritage policies and initiatives taken by the British rule, notably the vision and enlightened interest of Lord Curzon in preserving India’s great heritage. It also provides useful insights on the art of fieldwork, its rigorous methods and in purpose; different from the role of museums which are essentially meant to, “interest the uninformed and inform the interested…”
The last chapter is quite befittingly on the diminishing role of the Europeans and even Britishers in the archaeology department; with the baton gradually being passed on to the Indian team.
Clearly the main forte of the book is its rich repertoire of “The 150 photographs part of the Jean Philippe Vogel collection at the Kern Institute of the Universiteit Lieden. “All these photographs were made through the labour intensive wet plate technique, in which glass plates serve the purpose of a negative. Shortly before appliance these had to be wetted with a mixture of collodion and silver iodide to make them light sensitive. To avoid further exposure, a dark tent was needed on the spot to develop and fix the image.”
The photographs have been carefully selected to highlight the points of reference and challenges of heritage care in that era. Its very fascinating to browse through these pictures as they also successfully document not only a monument or a heritage place; but also its surroundings –often workers at the site; thus recreating the ambience of that period. For example, the photograph on page 12 not only captures the glory of the majestic Jama Masjid mosque at Agra taken in 1870-75 but also the usage of the large open space around it in a different social landscape than today. Similarly photographs of more familiar monuments like the Taj Mahal or the ghats of Benares are embedded in their art and photo historical context.
If Vogel was an archaeologist par excellence and a landmark of Indian heritage conservation, then the author of A Vision of Splendour, Gerda Theuns-de Boer can be called a befitting chronicler of his work. Her scholarship and erudition come through the book. She studied art and archaeology of South and Southeast Asia at the Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht with focus on archaeological photography, and is currently the manager of the photo collection of the Kern Institute in Leiden.
The book is an excellent read for the new generation of Indians, curious minds all across the world who wish to open their windows to the jewel that India was in the crown of the Raj.
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