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History

Revelatory aesthetics

RANVIR SHAH

Painted Photographs: Coloured Portraiture in India, from The Alkazi Collection of Photography, is an exhibition that documents the infinite aesthetic variety of colonial India. The exhibition, on in London, will come to India later this year.

‘They evolved as multiple articulations within a single genre, achieving a compelling elision of painting, photography and printmaking…’

Photo courtesy: The Alkazi Collection

Through a lens and brush: From left, A portrait of the Maharaja of Bharatpur; a seated lady and the Maharaja of Udaipur.

The Alkazi Collection of Photography has a wonderful range of photographs that it has collected over the years. After its meticulously curated show on Lucknow and the Mutiny of 1857, it has done a very focussed show on Painted Photographs: Coloured Portraiture in India at the Brunei Gallery at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The moment you enter, you are surrounded by painted photographs of maharajahs, princes and zamindars. All dressed in formal attire and many in official uniform, they are a collection of the Raj, the fading remnants. Turbaned, Sherwanis fitted, capes flowing in large sensuous drapes, decorations from the Empire pinned as badges of glory, jewellery adorning the torso and turban both, moustaches perfectly standing to attention, they form a club of royalty, staring at the viewer. Some of them are small, miniature-like and beautifully detailed like the portrait of the Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Bharatpur and others are grandiose like that of Maharaj Kumar Bhagwat Singh of Udaipur. Both have the eyes of the sitter directly talking to the camera, as if to say at that moment in history — so now what?

Photography, which came soon after its discovery to India in the 1840s or thereabouts, brought with it the not only the joy of the black and white photograph but also the magic of colour. Could it be otherwise? As the genre and technology became popular, so did painted photographs. One may ask why not, we were the land where Pink was our navy blue as Diana Vreeland the fashion doyenne once said. It was not just the rich and upper classes who had their photographs taken. Portraiture moves amongst and across the classes. While large studio establishments were set up at all the major centres such as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, the small town and principalities also had their local photographers.

Enhanced by colour

Everything from large family portraits to those of weddings and coming of age were documented and then enhanced and beautified by colour. The addition of jewellery, the texturing of clothing, the adding of landscapes all filled with an assortment of colours produced photographs that ranged from classy to kitsch.

However, what they show us today is a huge visual documentation of clothing styles, postures and the aesthetic of the colonial period with its settings of potted plants, carved furniture, ottomans, screens with chinoiserie and carpets and dhurries of infinite variety. We learn, we reminisce and we re-enter the world of our fore-fathers through these coloured images.

Distinct styles

As the venerable Ebrahim Alkazi himself says in the Foreword: “Indian Photographic studios developed their own karkhanas (artists’ ateliers and workshops) much in the manner of the traditional Mughal and regional schools of painting. They adopted particular styles and devised distinctive provincial traits and palettes. Some catered to royal patrons whose custom set them distinctly apart; others found a steady lucrative business in serving the needs of the burgeoning and prosperous mercantile and professional classes. With its fantastic painted backdrops of verdant landscapes, royal gardens, rearing stallions, tempestuous oceans and secret boudoirs, this unique mode of photography passed into the accepted aesthetic traditions of Indian life and has survived as one of its most delightful rituals.”

The next section, then, is representative of the common man and woman. Remember vanity prevailed then too and was not a sexist emotion. Couples after their marriage, ladies of a certain bearing all pose in studios and settings from the ordinary to the dramatic. We see the woman in different manners of wearing the saree. Their limpid eyes are reminiscent of Garboesque and Dietrich-esque longing and innocence. Freedom achieved in conversing with your eyes to an unknown world. Then there are pictures of a group of Jain munis and an exceptional one of a Sri Vaishnavite priest with his winter coat and shawl under a banner extolling Ramanuja.

There are two excellent essays in the catalogue that go with the exhibition. Rahaab Allana writes on “Realism and the Artist in Photography”, tracing the history of the painted photograph, talking in detail of some of the better known professionals in this field and their engagement with the world at large.

“Individuals such as Shapoor N. Bhedwar and S. Hormusjee were Parsee photographers from Bombay, the former being one of the first Indian practitioners to become famous internationally. In 1891, Bhedwar even received a gold medal in an international photograph contest in Liverpool, to which 3300 photographs were submitted.” He also takes us through the gradual decline of princely life which led to the patronising of photography as a fine art and its inclusion after miniature painting subsided in the changing times at the various courts of India.

Changing customs

The essay by Pramod Kumar K.G. talks about “The Evolving Modern” (1850-1950) — Indian costumes as seen through Painted Photographs and takes us through the minutiae seen in these visual repositories of how the purdah gave way to the openness of a saree in the public space, the costumes of royalty and the common man and the accessories and accoutrements that made them more mysterious, magical and empowered their roles more than in reality.

As one leaves, one is overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for a charmed yet changing period of history where human portraits with their concomitant stories/histories, whose details are a mystery to us in some ways, are captured by the photograph. As Rahaab Allana says at one point in his essay, “They evolved as multiple articulations within a single genre, in which the bold alchemy of brush and lens achieved a compelling elision of painting, photography and printmaking — modern art forms and repositories of the real”.

The process of colouring and tinting photographs is very much alive in the Indian metros and other towns. There are still many photo studios that will recolor photographs either digitally or by hand. This is heartening in some ways as the genre has survived. In fact, a few artists like Suman and Saurav known as Taxi are using it as a post-modern way to show their art. What this proves is that the image is not just in the eyes of the maker/photographer but is enlarged and magnified very often for the customer by the engagement with colour.

Beauty, as has been said, is finally in the eyes of the beholder, the more coloured, the better.

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