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Captured histories: The Hairy Family Of Burma. Photo: Courtesy Alkazi Foundation For The Arts.
Captured histories: The Hairy Family Of Burma. Photo: Courtesy Alkazi Foundation For The Arts.

Photographic memory

An exhibition documenting South Asia will open in the Capital next week

Meet the Hairy Family of Burma. They used to live at the king’s palace in Rangoon (now Yangon) during the late 19th century. Two of its members were covered with hair, and many believed that touching them brought good luck.

Sometime in 1890, an unknown photographer captured this family on camera. That portrait is among the 250 photographs which will be part of an exhibition starting 20 August in New Delhi.

Organized by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), along with the New Delhi-based non-profit trust, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, Drawn From Light—Early Photography And The Indian Sub-Continent captures the spread of photography from the mid-19th century to the 20th century in India, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Nepal. The show, which features originals drawn entirely from the Alkazi Foundation’s photography collection, will be inaugurated on 19 August to mark the 175th World Photography Day.

“This exhibition puts on view vintage and rare works through a display of early wax-paper negatives, albumen prints and postcards. It gives viewers an opportunity to observe the usual techniques of photography used in earlier periods, such as opalotype (photographs printed on sheets of opaque white glass instead of paper)," says Dipali Khanna, member secretary, IGNCA.

Remounted as a single show, Drawn From Light is based on two exhibitions held in New York, US, and Brussels, Belgium, in 2013-14. It offers a collection of works in portrait and landscape forms by early photographers like Raja Deen Dayal, India’s first court photographer, Alexander Greenlaw, an army officer, and Felice Beato, one of the world’s first war photographers.

“Most of these photographs were bought at auctions in the UK. They represent the broad and expansive fields of photography practice in South Asia," says the exhibition’s co-curator, Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation. The foundation is, for the first time, also showcasing the original negatives of some photographs.

Some of the show’s highlights are Greenlaw’s images of the ruins of the Vijayanagara empire (now Hampi in Karnataka). He used the now obsolete waxed-paper negative technology to capture the architectural details of the temples and palaces, and the surrounding landscape in Hampi.

John Murray’s systematically captured buildings in and around Agra show how landscapes change with time. The first-ever photographs of the Taj Mahal, clicked by Murray—a doctor—while he was researching for cholera treatment, show the monument hidden under thick forest cover and surrounded by buildings.

Most of the photographs of Burma are studio portraits featuring women wearing traditional sarongs and holding cheroots. The formal court portraits from Nepal, in contrast, offer a glimpse of the royal life.

Drawn From Light—Early Photography And The Indian Sub-Continent, will be on from 20 August-30 September, 10am-7pm (closed on Mondays and national holidays), at Twin Art Gallery, CV Mess, IGNCA, Janpath, New Delhi (23388155). Every second Saturday, Rahaab Allana will conduct a guided tour ​of the exhibition.

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