Lucknow in the mid-19th century must have been a photojournalist’s delight. Its feudal splendour was going to ruin. Ruling it was an effete nawab who did not have a head for politics, but fancied the classical arts. An imperial power was making obvious moves to chew up its sovereignty. And once the Mutiny broke out in 1857, it made a great frame for tragic still life.
It is hardly surprising then that two of Europe’s best-known war correspondents, Felice Beato and William Howard Russell, hurried this way to document the pillage of the city in 1857. Or that amateur shutterbug Samuel Bourne put together 425 photos of its lost grandeur.
Get to see some of these wonderful documents of Lucknow’s rise and fall at the Piramal Art Gallery in Mumbai. Put together by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, it shows you the city’s architecture and urban design before and after the Mutiny. The photographs are also a part of the book that came from the research into the subject by Rosie Llewellyn Jones, Lucknow: City of Illusion.
“A bare decade after Louis Daguerre discovered the photographic process, Lucknow had been framed for posterity,” says Rahaab Allana, who runs the Alkazi Foundation. “And, by the 1850s, the albumen print had become current, and this allowed photographers to make copies of their works.”
There is a reason why Lucknow’s architecture was planned to shock and awe. The nawabs ruled over a predominantly Hindu population and, more importantly, they belonged to the minority Shia sect. Building a line of dramatic buildings and complexes, such as the Asafi Masjid, Husainabad Imambara, pleasure gardens such as Qaisar Bagh and residences such as the Macchi Bhavan, was the regime’s way of exerting authority.
The trust, headed by Ebrahim Alkazi, has collected from various private sources as many as 90,000 archival photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They cover a large stretch, capturing images across South Asia, North Africa and West Asia.
The photographs on display in Mumbai do not include any of the horrific images of the Mutiny. These are likely to be part of another travelling exhibition-seminar the trust plans to organize later in the year. But many of the artists it showcases went on to make photographic histories later. Beato, for instance, shot a photo of a pile of skulls and bones of Indian soldiers massacred outside the Secunderbagh. Bourne shot the highest altitude photo ever taken at that time—a view of Manirung Pass in Spiti at 8,600ft. And Abbas Ali Darogah, an Indian municipal engineer in Lucknow who produced an illustrated book, The Lucknow Album, captured for posterity images of the city’s famous dancing girls.
Lucknow: Splendour and Decline, on till 17 April, Centre for Photography as an Art-Form, Piramal Gallery, NCPA, Mumbai.