June 6, 2010
It might be hard to think of a world a mere 100 years ago where colour photography was in its infancy. The Lumière brothers had just invented and patented the Autochrome method which rendered colour for the first time in a hitherto monochromatic, photographic world. World war I was raging. It is not surprising that literature and the arts dealt with war and peace.
Today in the age of digital photography, the Bayer pattern on modern camera sensors ironically most closely resemble, the orange, green and violet dyed potato starch grains on those Autochromes. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
The Albert Kahn Collection long hidden from public view has become available in a fantastic book by the BBC called the Wonderful World of Albert Kahn. Copies of a section of those 72,000 Autochromes (the largest collection in the world) pertaining to Journeys to India are being exhibited as part of the Bonjour India festival at the NGMA. The brief given by the philanthropist banker, Albert Kahn to two photographers using still and a cine- cameras respectively, was, ‘photograph everything, to safeguard a memory of civilisations fast disappearing’. That sounds very much like Gilbert Grosvenor’s manifesto to the (National) Geographic. Interestingly they were also told to ‘eliminate any influence of a western occupation’. Often times what you choose to leave out can become the most significant aspect of the work.
The still photographs made with a large format, tripod mounted camera, by Stephane Passet in Dec of 1913, and the cine clips by Roger Dumas in 1927 between them reveal what might be construed now as the display of arch rivalry between the allies France and England. If India were a French colony and the British a mere side show would the content of the photos be different. Between the second floor displaying the still photographs and the troisième étage projecting the cinema clips lie some telling truths. There is practically no trace of British colonial rule in the still photos shot even on urban mumbai streets, the camera shows people stopped in their tracks classically posing as was the fashion of the day, (autochromes were notorious for movement). And in the edit maybe a tacit denial.
The cine work shows in great detail the splendor of an obscure Maharaja Jagatjit Singh who ruled the tiny principality of Kapurthala near Julandhar which the wall text says is no bigger than Guadeloupe (a french colony in the Caribbean which to date is part of the European union). The maharaja was a widely travelled man but his undying love for all things french included his scholars translating Victor Hugo. Was this perhaps the big reason why he is made all so significant? In the background are his ostentatious palace built on the lines of palais de Versailles and his summer house called Buona Vista Villa.
Is it possible to eliminate influences of the west if you look at everything with western tinted glasses? The show was tacky in the extreme, poor copies of the original autochromes badly mounted in ugly brass fixtures.
The show was co-sponsored by Louis Vuitton, bon appetite.
In sharp contrast an impeccably mounted show entitled The Artful Pose at the exquisitely restored Bhau Daji Lad museum showed works by Mumbai studio photographers from the Alkazi collection. Most people will be unaware that photography came to Bombay as early as 1840, while we are familiar with Lala Deen Dayal and Raja Ravi Verma and the influence they had on each other, the works of Shapoor N. Bhedwar (1858-1915) in particular comes as a surprise. His photos from the album entitled Art Studies formed the second section of the show, these photos while pictorial in nature move from mere ethnographic documentations (the first part of the exhibit) to fine-art for the first time, including performance and drama into the narrative. Gool Guli – A Rose Bud and A Page from Shelly, Rahaab Allana tell us in the catalogue, “bridges the world of the wife with the world of the courtesan”, the last section of the exhibition is perhaps the most intriguing and beautifully illustrated, its called the Renunciation series depicting a yogi instructing idle, affluent, attractive, women. The show also complimented the museum’s permanent collection of trades and crafts people in terra cotta.