It’s not a pretty picture. A courtyard scene that’s peppered with skulls and bones while, in the background, men pose relaxed, leaning on the only pillars left standing, and a saddled horse waits. That’s the detailed frame of the world’s first photograph of corpses. The context is the 1857 November uprising in Sikander Bagh, Lucknow; the photographer, Felice Beato; the picture was taken in March-April 1858. While there’s no doubt that Beato had to stage his dramatic take on the aftermath of the battle, how far he went to do it is still a point of contention. Some say Beato dug up buried human remains and scattered them around the landscape he photographed, while others argue that the bones were already there.
But then, could bodies that died in November have been swept clean of flesh and skin in a matter of a few months? Who knows.
You can reach your own conclusions at an exhibition that will display reprints of Beato’s Sikander Bagh photograph and other works along with those of renowned photographers such as Samuel Bourne and John Edward Sache. “Remnants of the past: Traces of the uprising, 1857”, organized by Delhi University in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, will commemorate the 1857 revolt as part of the University’s 150th anniversary this year. As Nayanjot Lahiri, dean of colleges, says, the campus provides the perfect location. “Before Delhi University became a landscape of learning, it was a wasteland of war, and part of the British Army cantonment.”
The forces in the Capital got into the act when, during the morning parade on 11 May 1857, sepoy sympathizers in the British army revolted. The British responded by laying siege to the city from the Delhi ridge, which today lies along the border of Delhi University’s North Campus. “Delhi University is an apt location as not only does it mark the start of the uprising in Delhi but also marks a safehouse for the British. It embodies both sides of the battle,” adds Lahiri.
Forty vintage 19th century prints will be on display during the exhibition. The photographs are from the more than 75,000 in the private collection of Ebrahim Alkazi, chairman of the Alkazi Foundation. “We are averse to the idea of celebration for 1857 but believe in showing respect for the past and safeguarding these sites,” says Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation. The exhibition will cover three sectors of the uprising—Delhi, Kanpur and Lucknow, with a special focus on Delhi. “These images were a corpus of representation that was created to help produce and reproduce imperial power. It was a statement being made subtly on the fate of people who rebelled against colonial power,” says Neelandri Bhattacharya, professor at the Centre of Historical Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi.
The University, with 1,20,000 students spread across the Capital, also hopes that the event will bring professors and students into close contact with their city. To give the exhibition a modern perspective, the Alkazi Foundation is taking the help of two students from St Stephen’s College—Jeena Sarah Jacob and Suparna Chaudhary, who have criss-crossed the city taking pictures of historical sites from the same angles photographers used more than a hundred years ago. “Besides the 19th century photographs and the ones taken by the students, we will also be using satellite imagery to extrapolate the ideas of strategy and geology of the landscaping in that era,” says Allana.
Beato was also known as a pioneer in panoramic photography, one of the first of its kind being a shot from a minaret of Jama Masjid. “We’ve finally got permission to shoot from the minaret that is not in ruins on the opposite side of the one Beato used. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Allana. There are plenty of those in this show.
Remnants of a Past: Traces of the Uprising 1857 will be shown at the Conference Centre, Delhi University, till 20 November.