This has been a historic year for Indian photography. For the first time, New Delhi’s fine arts establishment embraced photography into its hallowed fold.

The Coming of Photography in India: Oxford University Press, 166 pages, Rs1,295.

Having played second fiddle to painting and sculpture (and later, even installations) since the mid-19th century—and having been patronized only by NGOs and a few connoisseurs who only promoted big names such as Raghu Rai—photography is finally emerging as a legitimate and lucrative art form, up for critical scrutiny and arousing collector interest.

To arrive at this beginning, photography has survived a difficult journey, as art historian Christopher Pinney elucidates in his new book The Coming of Photography in India. It’s a history of the first quarter of the 19th century, when interesting things happened to the way Indian people “looked" at themselves. French artist and chemist Louis Daguerre had invented the Daguerrotype process of photography in Europe. In Kolkata, Englishman William O’Shaughnessy (the itinerant gentleman’s achievements with the telegraph found place in a Lounge cover story, ‘The Telegram is dying’, 27 September) talked about his experiments with this new “photogenic drawing" at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta.

From here, Pinney’s narrative—broken down into three chapters, “Photography as Cure", “Photography as Poison" and “Photography as Prophecy"—takes us through the way photography evolved.

In the early years, it served strictly utilitarian purposes for the colonizers: as evidence for murders and killings, as records of damages sustained during the 1857 uprising, and as blueprints for town planners. The first man to document the streets, people and landscape of India—“to present his photography as omniscient"—was Samuel Bourne, who often peppered his images with jottings of a shockingly racist and imperialist nature: “Listening to nothing the whole time but barbarous Hindostani," he once said about his subjects.

Landscape: Samuel Bourne captures a bridge in Darjeeling (1869). The Coming of Photography in India / Oxford university Press

Pinney, who has keenly mapped the history and anthropology of India’s visual culture, is a master storyteller. Dry facts and anecdotes from as long ago as 1839 get momentum and immediacy in his book. The book begins with an imagined photo-taking event—a humorous exchange between an Indian maharaja and a photographer. The maharaja poses for the kind of portrait that still hangs on the walls of old palaces. Pinney, in fact, rounds off his book with the observation that the continuous thread that stands out in Indian photography is our obsession with the “sentimental realism of portraiture" which, he says, is akin to our engagement with democracy because it fundamentally involves the people of India “representing themselves to themselves".

Central to Pinney’s thesis are philosophical questions about the nature of photography itself. Does photography impose a way of seeing? Does a photograph’s endless capacity to be reproduced strip it of profound value? These are questions relevant to our age—when graphic images from war and conflict zones sell newspapers, and a lot of what goes under the umbrella of “documentary photography" sells as art.

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