History revisited

Haunting images of India's 1857 uprising against the British, shot by Felice Beato

This unusual though perhaps Orientalist collection of images by the photographer, a native of Corfu, gives us fresh insight into one of the most turbulent periods in Indian history.

The first corpses to be photographed might have been Indian. In the 19th century, images of Indians slain in the closing moments of the war of 1857 taken by Felice Beato, a citizen of the British protectorate of Corfu, were sold en masse in the United Kingdom as prints and postcards. His gritty images, not just of the conflict in India but also of the Crimean War that had preceded it, earned him the reputation for being one of the world's first war photographers.

As can be imagined, Beato didn't have it easy. Photography in 1857 was a laborious process. This was a time when photographers were limited by the long exposure times required for the plates of the camera to record light and were unable to capture movement. Yet Beato was an incurable traveller, invariably drawn to the heat of battle. On his first travelling project in 1855, he captured images of the Crimean War.

The end of Balaclava Harbour, 1855-1856. Photo at the J Paul Getty Museum.

Three years later, shortly after the British violently suppressed the Revolt of 1857, Beato docked in Calcutta. It had been only a few months since the violence had died down, and as Beato travelled from Bengal to Delhi, he found a number of subjects that caught his eye.

Two sepoys of the 31st Native Infantry, who were hanged at Lucknow, 1857. Photo at the J Paul Getty Museum.

Accompanied by a full caravan of Indian workers helping him set up the camera and travel comfortably, Beato travelled through the north of the country in search of sites to photograph. It is believed, though not established , that he was the first person to photograph corpses. In Sikandar Bagh in Lucknow, he had bodies of slain Indian rebels dug up to define his pictures better. Another of his images from Delhi shows an entire road strewn with disembodied skulls.

Interior of the Sikandar Bagh after the slaughter of 2,000 rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4th Punjab Regiment, April 1858. Photo at the J Paul Getty Museum. Photo at the Brown University Library.

India was only one of the first of Beato’s destinations. He then sailed to China, just in time for the second Opium War, and on to Japan, where he seems, finally, to have put aside his predilection for capturing violence. Beato was such a traveller that historians and photography enthusiasts today regularly follow his trail and attempt to recreate the photographs in contemporary settings. A group of videographers even attempted to pin down the exact locations of a set of images he’d shot in Crimea.

One of these is Jim Masselos, an Australian professor who came across a collection of Beato’s Delhi photographs at a secondhand book sale in Sydney in the mid 1990s.

“When I found them, they were just old pictures of Delhi,” said Masselos. “This was before Google, and it was difficult to get an idea of how India looked. I bought the book to show these images to my history class in Sydney.”

Jantar Mantar near Delhi, 1858. Photo at the J Paul Getty Museum.

However, Masselos was not content with simply possessing the images. He wanted them to be in the public domain. He approached historian Narayani Gupta, who suggested he put them in a book. They also thought it would be a good idea for Masselos to travel to Delhi and recreate photographs of Beato’s works in the exact same location, if only to show how much Delhi had changed since 1857.

In 1997, assisted by two researchers, Masselos stalked the streets of Delhi in search of elusive fragments or road structures that might have survived intact since Beato's time.

“We tried to see buildings the way Beato saw them,” said Masselos. At the entrance to Red Fort, for example, Masselos sat for hours waiting for the shadows and lighting to be the same as it was when Beato took his image of it. “But the air is different today,” he said. “The light can never really match.”

Entrance to the Jama Masjid in Delhi, 1858. Photo at the J Paul Getty Museum.

Masselos teased out the patterns in Beato’s images. In several, for example, there is one tall Indian with his turban hanging halfway down his back. He wears nothing except a dhoti. Yet Masselos is also careful to point out that many of Beato’s photographs are decidedly Orientalist, minimising local populations while highlighting landscapes and architecture. A more charitable interpretation would say that Beato was only following the established conventions of landscape photography, which did not prioritise people.

Masselos's photos came together in an illustrated book titled Beato's Delhi: 1857 and Beyond, co-authored with Gupta. In their essay, they note that Beato was at heart a commercial photographer. Since he took images on plates and not on one-time photo sheets, he was able to mass produce his photographs to suit his audience.

“We know very few details about Beato's life,” said Masselos. “People tend to debate things like when he was born. But the important thing about Beato was what he did while he lived.”

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

The cost of setting up an employee-friendly office in Mumbai

And a new age, cost-effective solution to common grievances.

A lot has been theorised about employee engagement and what motivates employees the most. Perks, bonuses and increased vacation time are the most common employee benefits extended to valuable employees. But experts say employees’ wellbeing is also intimately tied with the environment they spend the bulk of the day in. Indeed, the office environment has been found to affect employee productivity and ultimately retention.

According to Gensler’s Workplace Index, workplace design should allow employees to focus, collaborate, learn and socialise for maximum productivity, engagement and overall wellbeing. Most offices lag on the above counts, with complaints of rows of cluttered desks, cramped work tables and chilled cubicles still being way too common.

But well-meaning employers wanting to create a truly employee-centric office environment meet resistance at several stages. Renting an office space, for example, is an obstacle in itself, especially with exorbitant rental rates prevalent in most business districts. The office space then needs to be populated with, ideally, ergonomic furniture and fixtures. Even addressing common employee grievances is harder than one would imagine. It warrants a steady supply of office and pantry supplies, plus optimal Internet connection and functioning projection and sound systems. A well-thought-out workspace suddenly begins to sound quite cost prohibitive. So, how can an employer balance employee wellbeing with the monthly office budget?

Co-working spaces have emerged as a viable alternative to traditional workspaces. In addition to solving a lot of the common problems associated with them, the co-working format also takes care of the social and networking needs of businesses and their employees.

WeWork is a global network of workspaces, with 10 office spaces in India and many more opening this year. The co-working giant has taken great care to design all its premises ergonomically for maximum comfort. Its architects, engineers and artists have custom-designed every office space while prioritising natural light, comfort, productivity, and inspiration. Its members have access to super-fast Internet, multifunction printers, on-site community teams and free refreshments throughout the day. In addition, every WeWork office space has a dedicated community manager who is responsible for fostering a sense of community. WeWork’s customised offerings for enterprises also work out to be a more cost-effective solution than conventional lease setting, with the added perks of WeWork’s brand of service.

The video below presents the cost breakdown of maintaining an office space for 10 employees in Vikhroli, Mumbai and compares it with a WeWork membership.


To know more about WeWork and its office spaces in India, click here.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of WeWork and not by the Scroll editorial team.