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British Raj and India–Sotheby's

Reminiscing the bygone - Sotheby’s upcoming auction of the subcontinent’s earliest photographs is a vivid recollection of the land, its people and their architectural marvels, writes Uma Nair.

 Uma Nair |  2018-03-03 13:51:37.0

Indian photography from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century belongs to the haunts of history. The Great Within: Photographs of India and the British Raj in the 19th century at Sotheby's will be a highlight of its Asian Art Week in March. It features some of the subcontinent's earliest photographs, created in an era when India was a wide-open treasure trove for the British Crown, as it auctions a suite of 30 rare, evergreen images that will gain wider currency amongst the Indian diaspora and a broader audience.

Colin Murray's Gems
Among the many photographs it is Colin Murray's studies that are gems of purest ray serene.Whether he took a shot of Sitting in the foreground amongst the pillars in Mt Abu in Rajasthan in the temples or took images of the magnificent gopurams in Madurai, it is his eye for detailing the panache of scenic symbolism that comes to the fore. Most enchanting is the photograph of the Jag Mandir Palace, Udaipur from James Burgess' 'Photographs of Architecture and Scenery in Gujarat and Rajputana' taken by Colin Murray in c.1872-73. The Rajput capital of Udaipur, is situated on the picturesque Lake Pichola in between two hills. There are many pleasure pavilions on the lake, the best preserved complex is the Jag Mandir.
Built in 1551 of sandstone inlaid with marble, it commands a magnificent view over the City Palace and the Lake Palace. The domed pavilion or Gul Mahal was built in Mughal style architecture around 1621. Most of the other buildings are of the 18th Century. This is a view from the shore looking towards the Jagmandir Palace, with a boat drawn up on the shore in the foreground. It is the people in the boat that add to the rustic rhythm in the scene.
Felice Beato's Faizabad Market
Felice Beato's Faizabad Market is another jewel toned image replete with architectural nuances—Beato, the Venice born war photographer, had a yen for Islamic architecture and he shot a host of images of Indian mosques and imambaras in Delhi, Agra and Lucknow. Beato, the war photographer famous for his 1857 uprising pictures of Lucknow, was also a lover of architectural elements. Beato was a war photographer who had come to shoot the mutiny of 1857 and was known for his historic images of searing humanesque agony in portraying the futility of the war. Beato loved scouting the countryside looking for the Indian pastorale.
The charm of this work is the simplicity of style and the aura of the creative surge that lies within the many elements in the composition.The British print market flourished because of the colonial picturesque, the enchantment of the domestic rural and the virgin territory of ruggedness in both the country and street scenes, as well as, temple and Islamic architecture.
Primary Tool
Among landscapes, the moody marvel is Samuel Bourne's view of the Dhul Canal is Kashmir. The exhibition features prints by photographers and photography studios that worked and operated in India at the time, including Raja Deen Dayal and Bourne & Shepherd, one of the oldest photography studios in the world. Patronised by the upper echelons of the British Raj as well as Indian royalty, these artists took to photography, which was swiftly replacing painting as the primary tool for portraiture and documentation, not long after its invention in Europe. Their images feature portraits of Indian princes, Himalayan expeditions, landscape views, and architectural monuments, captured in all their grandeur.

Printing Process
The photographs have been printed from the original prints by Clark Worswick, a renowned photo historian who was also one of the first collectors of this work. He was the curator of The Last Empire, a historic exhibition at the Asia Society in 1976, which brought to public attention indigenous Indian photography for the first time.
Limited Edition Longevity
Over a sixty-year period, Worswick collected these works, trying to discover amidst decades of searching, both the makers of these photographs with their biographies and the pictures, realizing in the process that this impossibly evanescent oeuvre thrived only for 35- 45 years. Worswick then embraced the task of creating a limited edition series of prints in state-of-the-art carbon inks (with a longevity of almost 400 years) that exceed the quality and lifespan of the original pictures. In an India that is much changed in the last century-and-half, these important images are in some cases, the only surviving remnants of a bygone era.
Architectural Elevation
Between the minimal aesthetic of Moghul splendour, and the temples of both North and Southern India, the lithe lines of architectural details presented an aura of elevation. The result was that these photographs miraculously combine the best qualities of Moghul and Hindu traditions: the famed obsession of Mughal attention to fine detail is fused with a scientific Indianesque rationalism to produce architectural studies that both observe and feel the qualities of architectonics of buildings/temples/havelis.

This auction of just 30 stellar works presents leaves of the past in nostalgic notes of tranquility. No wonder the artist James Baillie Fraser who came to Calcutta and then to Delhi wrote to his father: "I have been of late literally stunned by views of mosques and tombs and ruins, wrecks of Delhi's former greatness. All the country is covered with tombs of all descriptions, some of great beauty . . . Years would be required to survey all that is worthy of attention. In comparison, all our Gothic castles and Roman fortifications sink into nothing. . ." And so be it.

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