The enormously wealthy French banker Albert Kahn was a pioneer of sorts who, from the early decades of the last century, devoted himself to the cause of furthering understanding between different cultures and fostering “internationalism”. In pursuance of this worthy goal, starting 1909, he despatched photographers to around 50 countries across the globe to create a photographic record of its people—called Archives of the Planet, the project continued until 1931, when it had to be called off because Kahn went bankrupt in the stock market crash of 1929. A collection of 72,000 autochromes—the first-ever realistic colour photos taken on films made out of dyed potato starch—is now housed at the Musée Albert-Kahn in Boulogne, near Paris.
Among the beneficiaries of Kahn’s vision and largesse is India—his photographers were here in the 1910s and 1920s, taking the earliest colour photographs of the country and her people. Now, almost a century later, Kahn’s autochromes will be on display in Delhi and Mumbai—the show, titled Journeys to India, will kick off Bonjour India, the festival of France that will celebrate French culture in all its variety and newness across 14 Indian cities from now until February.
Seer: An autochrome from Albert Kahn’s collection. Rabindranath Tagore (above) was a good friend of Kahn’s. Courtesy Musée Albert-Kahn
The autochromes are valuable for both historical and aesthetic reasons—“Photographs as well as films taken…at the beginning of the 20th century often show houses, everyday life scenes, craft occupations, transport which cannot be seen any more. For instance, we could not manage to identify some images taken in Mumbai in 1913-1914 due to the great transformations of the city,” says Sophie Couetoux of the Albert Kahn museum over email. She also points out that the unusual potato-starch composition lends them a “delightful appeal and sweetness that is very different from modern photography”. Naturally, the images have become invaluable for students of 20th century history. Couetoux points out that they have captured, for instance, “the ruins and the devastated landscapes after First World War, and…the traditional festivals in Brittany or funerary rituals in China.”
“Kahn devoted all his life to promote understanding among cultures,” says Aruna Adiceam, director, development and strategy department, CulturesFrance, “and to sustain dialogue.” Adiceam—who moved from India to Paris 35 years ago as child with her family—sees the exhibition as an apt beginning for a festival that will present the multicultural side of France, a society that has welcomed immigrants for many years now and has embraced their traditions and cultures. Bonjour India, then, is about showing the “new face of France” which will give ballet and fashion a miss in favour of hip hop, avant garde circus and acrobatics, and electronica music.
Among the festival highlights are Litteratures, a literature festival featuring French writers such as Pascal Bruckner and the graphic novelist David B; Rendez-vous with French cinema, a film festival that will show both new and old films; and If I were King, a comic opera. Adiceam points out how, at a time when cultures and countries were farther apart, Kahn dreamt of bringing them together. “He wanted to show that they could meet,” she says. Bonjour India is another step in that endeavour.
The Albert Kahn Collection—Journeys to India will be on display at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, from 28 November-24 December, and in Mumbai from 7-28 January. For details, log on to www.bonjour-india.com