photo roll

CSI India: A collector of memories revisits old crimes and investigations through photographs

Anusha Yadav’s latest project delves deep into evidence photography in India.

“Two murders for $35,” reads the undated invoice to the legendary photographer Weegee. Sent by LIFE magazine, the invoice uses the word murders as a substitute for photographs of murder, inadvertently reminding us of the French film critic and theorist André Bazin’s debatable claim that “the photographic image is the object itself”. Although Bazin’s notion, proffered in his book What is Cinema?, is not very reasonable, it does play out in images that serve as evidence of an occurrence – such as, images of crime.

It was perhaps this thought that prompted an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in October 2015. Using eleven cases, Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence looked at photographs as evidence in instances of crime or acts of violence. It brought to light not only the how, the when and by whom of the images, but also a deeper understanding of interpreting the images as forensic evidence.

That very year, photographer Anusha Yadav was led to delve deep into evidence photography in India from 19th and 20th century owing to a commission by the Format International Photography Festival, Derby. The exhibition that she assembled after completing her curatorial research – titled The Photograph is Proof – is showing at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road from March 9 as part of a larger exhibition, Access Time, and the biennial FOCUS Photography Festival.

Known as one of the most important police officers of Bombay, Balchandra  Ambadas Haldipur drew several sketches of suspects, informants and witnesses while chasing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins. 1948-1949.  Sketches and narrative courtesy: Haldipur Family, Thane, Maharashtra.
Known as one of the most important police officers of Bombay, Balchandra Ambadas Haldipur drew several sketches of suspects, informants and witnesses while chasing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins. 1948-1949. Sketches and narrative courtesy: Haldipur Family, Thane, Maharashtra.

A connoisseur of memory, Yadav is the founder of the Indian Memory Project which presents a “visual and oral history of the Subcontinent via family archives”. Her fascination with crime as a subject goes back a long way – but it was when she discovered the Indian Art Studio, one of Mumbai’s oldest photography studios whose four generations of owners have worked as evidence photographers with the police, that the idea of working with old forensic and evidential images began to take shape.

“I like the stories, not necessarily the technique when it comes to photography,” says Yadav of her engagement with the medium. In The Photograph is Proof, Yadav stresses on the criticality of understanding when photography was being done and when it wasn’t, and how images were being appropriated. As part of the research and curation, she met criminal lawyers, crime reporters, press photographers, detectives and forensic specialists, while scouring the Nehru Memorial Library, British Library and the National Archives of India for historical data.

The ‘Alipore Bomb Case’, also know as the Manicktola Bomb Case, was one of the most important court trials during 1908-1909 in the history of India’s  Independence movement. Here are 4/49 accused of bombing and nationalistic activities. Photographed after being arrested. Calcutta District, 1908.  Images courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi/Photographer Unknown.
The ‘Alipore Bomb Case’, also know as the Manicktola Bomb Case, was one of the most important court trials during 1908-1909 in the history of India’s Independence movement. Here are 4/49 accused of bombing and nationalistic activities. Photographed after being arrested. Calcutta District, 1908. Images courtesy: Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi/Photographer Unknown.

Yadav springs some surprises in the exhibition. There is a reminder of the case of revolutionary-turned-philosopher Sri Aurobindo, who was sent to prison and later acquitted in the Alipore Bomb Case in 1908. His photo, captioned “Aurobindo Ghose the alleged leader”, is a fascinating portrait, unlike what one would imagine of a prison mug shot. The poise is remarkable. He appears unaffected – a reminder of the conviction of the bombers and their nationalist intentions. Then there’s the case of Jim Scott, the Chief Inspector of Bombay who was knifed in the face by a man accused of being a “Thuggee”, a term used for bands of robbers responsible for about 20,00,000 deaths, according to British records.

The Photograph is Proof also remembers the murder of businessman Prem Ahuja by naval officer KM Nanavati, whose coverage by the tabloid Blitz was as sensational as the crime itself. Placing Nanavati’s wife Sylvia’s photograph in the middle of his and Ahuja’s images with a (love) triangle running around the three, the tabloid drew from forensic photographs and was intent on influencing public perception with its visual narrative.

In the pre-television era, Blitz, a tabloid run by Russi Karanjia, was almost  single-handedly responsible for turning Prem Ahuja’s murder into a nationwide gripping event that lasted nearly two and a half years. The relentless coverage drew from multiple domains, including forensic photographs of the crime. Blitz Tabloid reproduction of the Nanavati Case, 1959-'60. Images courtesy: Sabeena Gadihoke and Rita Mehta, New Delhi.
In the pre-television era, Blitz, a tabloid run by Russi Karanjia, was almost single-handedly responsible for turning Prem Ahuja’s murder into a nationwide gripping event that lasted nearly two and a half years. The relentless coverage drew from multiple domains, including forensic photographs of the crime. Blitz Tabloid reproduction of the Nanavati Case, 1959-'60. Images courtesy: Sabeena Gadihoke and Rita Mehta, New Delhi.

In the 1958 record Famous Photographers Tell How, Weegee said of the camera, “It’s like a modern Aladdin’s lamp, you rub it, you push the button and it gives you the things you want.” Armed with a police radio in his car, Weegee nursed his fetish for photographing murder by being the first to turn up at the crime scene. It wasn’t just the crime he liked photographing – he also want to photograph himself with the evidence and criminals. This is another way of seeing how people, including image-makers, engage with the visual medium even when it is primarily hoping to carry a sort of evidential weight.

Yadav’s The Photograph is Proof draws attention to instances where a crime or criminal has been thought to be a work of fiction, but in fact stems from a historical truth, as depicted in the photograph. Debunking the myth of Natwarlal, a popular Indian con artist largely remembered in public memory as a film character played by actor Amitabh Bachchan, Yadav presents the real context and a chance for people to reconsider their own perceptions of fact and fiction. This explains why her project is text heavy and intentionally so.

The police officer Jim Scott was stabbed in the face with a knife by a man who was allegedly a Thuggee. Bombay, India. Circa 1937. Image Courtesy: Photographs by Bert Scott, The Library of Birmingham, Jason Tilley collection MS-2965. Information: Jason Tilley, Coventry.
The police officer Jim Scott was stabbed in the face with a knife by a man who was allegedly a Thuggee. Bombay, India. Circa 1937. Image Courtesy: Photographs by Bert Scott, The Library of Birmingham, Jason Tilley collection MS-2965. Information: Jason Tilley, Coventry.

“For me the individual stories are important, especially since these are in the public domain, but not necessarily meant for the public,” she said.

Yadav is interested in an unprejudiced reading, one that could be deemed similar to what was delivered by Alphonse Bertillon, the father of forensic photography in his use of a tripod to achieve a bird’s-eye view of the crime scene, where all details received equal attention.

In her storytelling, Yadav lends an environment of relevance to photography as being not just a tool of evidence, but also a form that was restricted in practice under the British rule in India. For instance, in the Amherst street murder case of 1868, the first to be documented for forensic purposes, the death of Rose Brown (referred to as an East Indian and accused of being a sex worker) was declared a suicide even though it appeared a murder. Yadav points out that this crime led to the setting up of the Detective Department of Calcutta Police. The photographing of the Brown murder also turned out to be a landmark move since the medium could be used to identify bodies and maintain a record of the crime.

Yadav’s curation of the history of crime by way of a photographic enquiry opens up a previously unexplored archive not just for a re-reading of the visual medium but also to locate it as an accomplice to history.

Anusha Yadav.
Anusha Yadav.

The Photograph is Proof opens on March 9 at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, as part of a larger exhibition, Access Time.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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