When South Asia Met the Camera

October 20, 2013 Updated: October 20, 2013

NEW YORK—While photographers were just figuring out how to use silver iodide-coated paper to make images, British colonizers brought the camera—in all its early bulk—to South Asia. There, the medium took on a life of its own, as can be seen in the Rubin Museum’s newest exhibit, Allegories and Illusions. 

The exhibition features 120 photographs from mid-19th to early 20th century India, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, all on loan from the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi. It is a departure from the museum’s staples of bronze deities and devotional scrolls; here we have portraits of people, doing secular things and interacting with their time and places. 

The photographs are displayed by region. All the countries represented—except Nepal—were British colonies and each encountered photographic portraiture in a different way. 

Inventive India

India was introduced to calotype photography within a year of its development in Europe, in 1841. Indian artists must have consciously or unconsciously decided that black and white photos were not enough for India’s colorful culture because their first instinct was to paint over the photos with watercolors or oils. The result is the painted photograph, something not reaching the documentary lifelikeness of unadulterated photographs or the dimensionality of oil portraiture, yet possessive of a charm all its own. 

In this genre we have Indian rulers—mustachioed, turbaned, and bejeweled—posing formally for portraits that were then altered as if by 19th century photoshop: the images enlarged, backgrounds obliterated and transformed, outfits tinted myriad hues. 

Then we have more experimental examples, like one lady’s portrait. She stands in a plushly furnished room, black and white except for the foreground objects and her fire engine-red sari, electric against her grey face. The whole scene is framed by a decorated matte and punctuated with actual glitter. One can’t help but wonder what the artist meant by this peculiar treatment of color and whether the woman herself lived like a bland backdrop to her worldly possessions. 

A group portrait of physician Hakim Ajmal Khan and his family sticks out because of its otherworldly flatness. At first blush it seems as through a colossal effort was made to herd fifty or so kinsfolk into neat rows, but closer examination reveals that each person was photographed individually, the photos cut out, pasted together, and the resulting “group shot” photographed again. 

Precisely because photographs were so creatively manipulated, the curators—Beth Citron, the Rubin Museum’s assistant curator, and Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation—named this exhibition Allegory and Illusion.

“One of the things you see throughout the exhibition is so much of the way photographers and the subjects have manipulated context and their own self image and manipulated the technologies available to them,” Citron said.

Documenting the Land and People

Throughout most of the exhibition the tension is evident between the subjects’ self-perception and the interests of colonial power.

“Photography arrives in these countries in the year of its birth. The different approach to portraiture is what we have tried to convey,” Allana said, adding that the reasons for taking the portraits, how they were collected and circulated, differed by country.

“Some were taken in commercial studios, some were taken by government officials [and] used as objects of surveillance, some were taken for ethnographic purposes. Some were dealing with fashion and trends at the time,” he said.

In these diverse photographs one can find scenes of war as well as villagers, warriors, and clergymen in their everyday environs. These types of photos would have been taken by English officers whose jobs were to document the land and its people.

Then you have stern-looking Nepalese princesses who by tradition were forbidden to smile for the camera, and young women in Burma posing as if for Vogue, after the style of glamor shots prevalent in European fashion photography. In both instances the subjects are very much aware of the image they project as individuals or as a member of a ruling family.

The exhibited photographs were circulated and collected all over the world as interest in this part of the world grew. It is the first public exhibit in recent memory of early portrait photography from South Asia and an appetite-whetting introduction to a little-explored segment of photographic arts. 


Allegory and Illusion 
Oct. 15–Feb. 10, 2014
Rubin Museum of Art
150 West 17 Street
www.rmanyc.org; admission $5–$10