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.

ethnographic studies

from cortesan to bride

the yogi - the lesson

the yogi - lesson

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.


The Photograph : Painted, Posed and of the moment, an exhibition currently on at the NGMA is perhaps the most significant piece of photography to manifest itself all in one place. The exhibition is wonderfully curated with not a single image being out of place or superfluous. In that sense if you want to ‘trip’ as in a Pablo Barthomew, come prepared with comfortable shoes and at least 3 hours to spare. You cannot or should not rush through this show. In many ways, the exhibition on at the NGMA will be a harbinger of things to come, all bode well for photography and the arts.

The photographs are arranged in a very finite order at every ‘etage’ of the gallery. On the ground floor as you enter, you will be messmerised by images that have messmerised us for many years now, that have in some ways etched themselves into the collective unconscious. All the photographs on this floor have been seen before, but when you stand in front of an original Henri Cartier Bresson bromide, its like meeting an old friend, an aristocrat, and a god. Everything that can be said about Bresson has been said so it would be completely dangerous to tread this territory, however there are magnificent texts by artists, sociologists, historians, musicians, editors, photographers, writers and theatre personalities among others who give the viewer another insight via language where at times the silence of the still image could speak more eloquently.

Kobo Abe in one of those placards says that a Bresson image –  is not a window into space rather into Time. That sentiment could be parsed differently, most of Bresson’s images exceed the Einsteinian restrictions of space/time, they move into a zone of timelessness, The geography and specificity of that Title – Mexico 1934 become redundant. Ferdinando Scianca speaks of another image of a veiled woman with child – Mexico 1934, he celebrates the ‘lack of sentimentality or the picturesque’ in that image and is spared of the ‘blackmail of rhetoric’. He says pithily, that the image was ‘taken in Mexico but devoid of mexicanisation’. This might well be a lesson to all those photographers who trump the ethnic. Andre Pieyne  writes about what he calls the ‘love spiders’ the image of two lesbian women revealing tastefully just enough without being salacious. The issue of photographer as voyeur does crop up repeatedly, Eduardo Arroyo notes that the humorous photograph of two men in Brussels 1932, ‘one peeping through a hole at reality that is concealed from us and the other in a bowler hat looking around suspiciously at being observed’, reminds us that we, the per-viewer of the camera’s view are all in the picture. The notion of photograph as premonition is revealed by  Leonardo Sciasia with the famous image Sevilla, Spain 1933, the children depicted seem to be ‘playing with war, a war they do not yet know’.

Interestingly Bresson gave up photography for 15 years till his death, his decisive finger was sketching instead. No doubt Bresson would be one of the most vivisected photographers that ever lived, his work will be scanned for psychological, social, anthropological and aesthetic nuances, its best to sum him up with one sentence, Cartier Bresson is not a photographer, he is a Photography(sic)

Pablo Batholomew who we knew and loved from the junior world press days and with sporadic visual interventions, was perhaps significant by his absence. You got the feeling that he was lost and unable to find a new way of telling old stories. The second floor digs through his archive and in all those years of sex drugs and rock and roll reveal what he found worthy of imaging, this is a sort of confession, laying open his private diary. There are some matter of fact photos of a lavatory 1975, bed sheets, Carmen’s house, Bathroom shelf and a college dining room that speak of honesty and non pretentiousness that invade most of our modern ways of seeing. The fungus on his self portrait negatives are in some ways as telling. The Jawa motorcycle and the rounded cornered Allwyn refrigerator are visual semiotics of an era.

Dayanita Singh’s Sent a Letter moves away from the arrogance of the limited edition archival print to a more engaging, human, quiet, understated, accordion series of books that you can posses when you leave the gallery, these are small jewels of private communication, all the images are in a square format and contact size. there is an intimacy, beauty and stillness to them. She shares space with Nony Singh her mother whose need to archive the family is beautifully depicted. The portraits are exquisite.

On the fourth floor is Umrao Singh Sher- Gil whos many self portraits and gorgeous little sepia contact prints speak of His Misery, His Manuscripts and narcissism. The autochrome back-lit images of family are stunningly beautiful.

The only other colour photographs ironically are the ones that predate colour photography, they belong to the Alkazi collection, there are the familiar colonial Deen Dayal type images but more interesting are the hand tinted photos which a decade later sometimes, gave the original, black and white photographs, a new context and added a layer of the aesthetic of a different decade. The exhibit is under lit not surprisingly, the pigments and dyes would be prone to fading. There are astonishing images that could be an inspiration to a whole generation of contemporary photographers and artists alike, but the jewel in the crown is a hand coloured Daguerrotype, you register a double take and in its mirrored image across two hundred years you can get a glimpse of yourself.