Women dressed in styles which have long disappeared, courtesans posing for their first pictures, and monuments captured at a time when they weren’t competing for space with humans: These are only some of the many images showcased at the ongoing exhibition, Spectacular: Cities and People in Hyderabad. As a part of the city’s annual Krishnakriti Festival conducted by the Kalakriti Art Gallery, the exhibition showcases a collection of photographs from 1858 to the early-mid 1900s, which capture the eccentricity of India’s customs, festivities and architecture, at its best.

After its invention in Britain and France, the appearance of photography in India was almost simultaneous. Thousands of photographs were taken from 1850 onward, as Britain strove to document its colonies. In turn, the British passed on their skills to native Indian draftsmen and surveyors, strengthening the use of photography as an administrative tool.

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Residents Boat, on the Dhul Canal, Srinagar

Baker and Burke

Circa 1868

Albumen silver print

Commercial photographers set up shop at Calcutta (1854), Bombay (1855) and Madras (1856), and the earliest photographs of India were primarily of its architectural wonders, unusual topography and prodigious prototypes of indigenous ethnicities. By 1860-65, every city with a British presence had several studios, and early media like daguerreotypes disappeared to give place to stable mediums such as albumen silver prints and silver gelatin prints.

Photography came in as a handy tool to document people, traditions, monuments and happenings.

This exhibition represents the best images of the gallery’s archives spanning nearly a century, taken by the masters of the art — Burke and Baker, Skeen and Co, Frith, Underwood and Underwood, Ralph Bezzant Holmes, Henderson and Johnson, Del Tufo and Co and Raja Deen Dayal. The exhibition was curated by Deepthi Sasidharan who combed through the archives and selected 74 images to be displayed.

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Shipping at Madras

Circa 1895

Albumen silver print

Sasidharan, a Fulbright scholar with intensive research stints at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Aveiro, Portugal, who was approached by the gallery two months ago to curate the show, calls these photographs art objects. She says, “What sets any collection apart is the eye of the person behind it. It’s always the most important and nuanced differentiating factor. This collection, apart from being grounded in Hyderabad and the South, has strong elements from the whole country, which makes it fascinating.”

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Tamil Girl

Scowen & Co.

Circa 1885

Albumen silver print

Initially, Sasidharan envisioned a show of only images from Hyderabad, but later, she expanded the scope to include pictures from other parts of the country, as they were no ‘new unseen images’ of the city. Outlining the selection process, she explains, “I wanted the images to be top notch and as museum quality as possible. These are the best images – the quality is high, there are no flaking, broken or repaired images. We treated them as pieces of art, right from the low lighting levels to the careful framing and proper mounts, and presented in the best possible way.”

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Gohar Jaan (right) and her mother Malka Jaan

Circa 1895

Albumen silver print

The images themselves are breathtaking, divided into five categories – city spaces, sacred, spectacular, seductive and studio. They capture a myriad set of happenings. Each category shows monuments, people, grandeur of royalty, women being photographed and religious practices of the day.

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The Nautch Party at Woolagiri Mines

1895

Albumen silver print

In one image from 1870, one can see the Asoka Pillar commissioned by Emperor Asoka in the third century BC, another from 1895 captures the then reigning songstress of the nation, Gohar Jaan, with her mother Malkha Jaan. The images of Bora Bazaar in Bombay, Kapaleeswarar Temple Rath Yatra, and the wedding procession in Gwalior, help us identify and juxtapose customs, textiles, city planning and way of life from the late 1800s with the current times.

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Borah Bazar, Bombay

Circa 1880

Albumen silver print

Located north of the Fort area, the Borah Bazar was a commercial market named after the mercantile Bohra Muslims involved in shipping. The bustling market saw vendors from around the world

Sasidharan points to two images, Prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi from 1920 and Ritual bathers at the Mahamaham Tank, Kumbakonam taken in 1880.

She remarks that the biggest contribution of photography is that it shows how some things remain constant in the churn of time.

She adds, “These images can be from any Friday at Jama Masjid or any Mahamagham at Kumbakonam. It just shows how our faith and our expression of it has remained unchanged over a century.”

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Prayers at the Jama Masjid, Delhi

Circa 1920

Silver gelatin print

The images are from the personal collection of Prshant Lahoti, founder of the Kalakriti Gallery, who spent the last 15 years searching for rare images from the British rule in India across the world. He shares, “My whole collection revolves around aesthetics. The quality of these images is far superior to what we have today. Every photograph is a piece of art. When you look at them, the buildings have changed, the spaces have altered and the customs have disappeared, which is all the more reason to treasure them.” With nearly 8000-10000 images in his collection, he says that he is currently on lookout for images of rare photographers not common in public domain.

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Monolith of Feroze Shah

Francis Frith & Co.

Circa 1870

Albumen silver print

Technically the images are of a very quality, and in the blown up images, one can easily decipher minute details, right from the carvings on the pillars to the expression on the faces. Sasidharan credits this to the talented people behind the lens, who she says were the best of the best. She explains, “The quality was superior because they used early processes which are very different from what we have now. They are not pixels but images captured on glass.

What’s important to note is that the practitioners were fewer but they were specialists, they were artists doing aesthetic compositions. They needed to be dark room specialists, chemists, and had to have the means to run a studio.

Lastly, it was a fairly physical process, as taking a camera was a 300 kilo affair with glass negatives and the whole paraphernalia.”

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Royal Wedding Procession, Gwalior

1940

Silver gelatin print

Siddhartha Chatterjee, a museum designer who scenographed the show, says, “We came up with thematic clusters which spoke to each other. Space is a powerful determinant of how you experience the story, and while I helped to spacial-ise the narrative, Deepthi narrati-ses the space. This show has a well-placed story and we had to figure out how to adjust to the quirks of the space. Building dramatic moments when you turn corners and how to experience a blown up image helps one to relate to material from more than a century ago. The nature of composition of images on display is strong and helped to create an aesthetically intimate exhibit.”

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Prince Mukarram Jah with cars and attendants

Circa 1965

Halftone print

Grandson of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, Prince Mukarram Jah Bahadur grew up between Hyderabad and London. Extremely fond of machines, he collected vehicles of all types. Here he poses with his private guards and other cars all marked ‘Hyderabad-1’ in front of his private residence.

Are these images relevant in 2019? Sasidharan thinks they are. He says, “From town planning to heritage, these images show us how our country was 150 years ago and what we have done to its cities. They provide a prism, evoke nostalgia and give documentary evidence of how the British ran our country. How they viewed our religious practices and looked at our women. They also speak of the relatively unknown but important photographers who documented our country through their work.”

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Kandyan Woman, Ceylon

Skeen & Co.

Circa 1890

Albumen silver print

Giving a masterly insight into people and places of the past, this showing of archival images succinctly captures a time gone by, and leaves the visitor to ponder about our rich glory, architecture and expertise which existed just a century or two, ago.

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Kapaleeswarar Temple Rath Yatra

Underwood & Underwood

Circa 1900

Silver gelatin print

The exhibition is on till January 17 at State Art Gallery, Hyderabad.

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