Deccan Through Glass Plate Negatives capture high-resolution history
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The 28 photographs that went up on display at the Hyderabad’s State Museum last week are not only a reminder of a time when the Nizams ruled over the Deccan—a region that is now Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, southern Maharashtra and northern Karnataka—it is also a reminder of one of humanity’s most significant inventions: photography.
The Nizams’ rule between 1724 and 1948 was also a period when architecture, poetry, craftsmanship and the culinary arts flourished. Partly to preserve his family’s heritage and driven also by the lure of an emerging technology that allowed him to do so, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan hired photographers in the newly-established Department of Archaeology in 1914. They would scour the length and breadth of the Deccan with bulky field cameras made from wooden boxes, capturing images on glass plates coated with a light sensitive material.
This practice continued well into the 1940s, till technology had advanced to film rolls.
By the turn of the 20th century of course, things had changed vastly and until a couple of years ago, 4,800 of these glass plate negatives had been lying in the archives of what was now the department of Archaeology and Museums of India’s most recently formed state, Telangana. The boxes hadn’t been opened in more than 60 years; fungus grew over them with abandon. In 2012, the Department signed an agreement with the Vision Information Transaction Pvt Ltd (VIT), the Indian arm of a Swiss company for restoration and digitization of these negatives.
In the pilot project, 1,100 glass plate negatives were digitized, says Paulus E. Raveendra, general manager, VIT. The rest were completed over time. Some of these photographs include the British Residency in Hyderabad, the town hall (which now houses the state assembly) and the High Court on the southern bank of Musi river, which are part of the exhibition Deccan Through Glass Plate Negatives. Also on display is a rare field camera with bellows, which was used in the days of the Nizams to photograph many of the sites. The photographs cover a range of monuments—Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist—alongside excavation sites, and fortifications, and date from 1914 to 1962.
The process of restoration was not only-time consuming, but also challenging. It brought together men and women from different fields—the government, the design department of an engineering college, a heritage consultancy and a digital asset management company—to make this happen. “The first step was pre-digitisation, when each piece was checked for physical quality and condition,” says N. R. Visalatchy, director, Department of Archeology and Museums, Telangana. Then came metadata acquisition—a time-consuming process of transcribing details from old registers into spread sheets. This was followed by department experts authenticating the information.
Though the glass plate negatives are no longer in use, they offer the very best in image quality and resolution, something that no modern photography can match. “It is the only style that allows the photo to be blown up to any size, without loss of resolution,” says Basav Biradar, a heritage consultant with the Deccan Heritage Foundation, an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving the region’s culture and history. Biradar played an important role in bringing the right mix of people together to work on this project. This included Maniyarasan R, a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, who also has a post- graduate degree in photography. Maniyarasan assisted Visalatchy in curating the show. “I spent two to three days selecting the photos, determining the print size, mounting, and more,” he says.
In case a part of the image was missing, Raveendra’s team at VIT would assess the adjoining pixels for their wavelength to restore the image. “It’s a bit like doing physical restoration of a painting,” says Raveendra. And like physical restorers, the tech team had to ensure that no new information was created on the image, as this was a documentary evidence of monuments of a particular period.
The images were finally catalogued and printed on acid-free paper and recorded on Microfiche. “On an average, this entire process takes two hours per glass plate. However, in this case, the average turned out to be five hours per plate, as the metadata had to be published in a book form, which then had to be authenticated by the government officials. This was a Herculean task,” says Raveendra.
A lot of images took the team by surprise, like the presence of several small temples near Bidar in Karnataka. The project has turned out to be extremely valuable for future conservation work. “We are working on a conservation policy for a monument near Warangal. While going through the glass plate negatives, we found one set from 1943 which showed huge water stagnation near the structure,” says Visalatchy. She realised that the area prone to significant hydraulic activity and this should be accounted for in the policy.
Deccan Through Glass Plate Negatives, will be on view at the State Museum, Hyderabad, PG Road, near Control Room, Hyderabad; 10.30am to 5pm (closed on Fridays), till 2 September