Early on in their book Photography in India, Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral insist that photography in India cannot actually be “confined within one nation’s borders”. Born in a period of globalisation, the discipline had a “fraught dialogue between the country and the rest of the world,” they note. What follows in the book is an attempt to historicise this relationship across 10 essays by showcasing 101 photographers, spanning nearly two centuries.

“We wanted to…create a narrative of Indian photography whilst opening up access to the field to the reader – so, for example, if you’re interested in photojournalism in India, we provide windows into bodies of work and the places you might be able to find them,” Gujral, a PhD scholar at University College London, told Scroll.in in an email interview.

It is this ability of the book to provide a kaleidoscopic insight into photography in and of India that sets it apart from earlier works on the discipline. While most of the older scholarship focuses on 19th century photography in India, the 304-page book’s essays traverse right up to the 21st century in a tight visual narrative. To make this possible, Gaskell, a co-founder of Bengaluru’s Museum of Art & Photography, spent the last 10 years exploring large well-known collections, private collections, archives of smaller universities and museums in India, the UK and the US, and descendants of photographers who have organised collections.

Khubiram Gopilal. Families worshipping the deity Shrinathji in Nathdwara, c.1940. Courtesy: the Museum of Art & Photography, Bengaluru.

“Photography is a part of everyone’s life, and we live in an image economy,” said Gaskell. “Understanding how to read photographs, how to place them in historical, cultural and popular contexts is important.”

For instance, we would not readily compare selfies with early Victorian portraiture from India in the 19th century, but once we understand the latter, it is hard not to connect the dots. “Having one’s portrait taken has always entailed some amount of performance – be it your stature, your possessions or your faith, as is the case in the photographs of pilgrims taken at Nathdwara by Khubiram Gopilal,” said Gujral. “I think a very similar thing is at work in the manic selfie-taking that one sees across India today – young men dressed in their best, taking great pains to produce the most attractive likeness possible.”

Photography in India, then, is a search for India’s soul through various lenses spanning nearly two centuries. These lenses aren’t just the cameras that went from belonging to the colonisers to the Indian elite and then the wider public. The 19th century was at the cusp of exciting transitions that would transcend generations and geographies and influence academic disciplines, which came into their own later. Photography, anthropology, archaeology and the sciences shaped one another’s contours, and fed the bottomless thirst for knowledge and power.

As one of the earliest travel photographers, William Johnson, declared in The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (1863 and 1866), “photographic delineations of the numerous peoples and tribes frequenting...Bombay...have long been desired both among students of geography and ethnography, and the lovers of art.” This was true of the entire subcontinent and is a consistent sub-plot in most of the book.

The images are brilliantly curated to showcase the obvious role photography played in colonial explorations of caste and race, with works of early British photographers, such as Maurice Vidal (who photographed tribes in the Andamans and is remembered for abducting a few Sentinelese people), William Johnson (founder of Bombay Photographic Society), and Saché & Westfield (studio in Calcutta, commissioned by Asiatic Society of Bengal).

Saché & Westfield. Andamanese group with their keeper Mr Homfray, 1865. Courtesy: The British Library, London.

Photography is a key witness to the problematic colonial explorations of race, nationality and identity. Some of the photographs – such as an Andamanese group with their keeper Mr Homfray, taken in 1865 by Johnson – make for uncomfortable viewing, and the descriptions are even more questionable. They come across like a violation of personal space and an act of violence. Explorations of archaeology seem less problematic but equally pertinent to shaping our identity, and find mention in Archaeology and Ethnography and some subsequent chapters.

Lingering effects of the colonial past are displayed in a chapter titled Post-Modernity and Play. Whether it is the work of Sheba Chhachhi, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew or Pushpamala N and Clare Arni’s project Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs, the throwback raises uneasy questions on how the subcontinent’s past was interpreted by photographers, anthropologists and archaeologists. Much later, in chapters titled Society and Street and Essay and Enquiry, Gaskell and Gujral showcase photographers who have showcased the obvious and the obscure realities of an “everyday” India.

Gaskell says that the amateur photographer of today has been largely influenced by the professional of yesterday, particularly the members of the collective Magnum Photos. “The biggest culprit perhaps is Steve McCurry,” he added. “He presents a very exotic, highly saturated and visually splendid idea of India, one that is firmly the product of the Western imagination. [His photography presents] India as the ‘other’ – a timeless place outside the functioning of the modern world.”

McCurry’s imagination of the country, Gaskell says, has become the aspiration of a certain kind of amateur photographer and the tropes of his photos are repeated frequently. There has been “a strange self-exoticism by Indian photographers,” said Gaskell, and it is “a demonstration of how deep Western hegemony is.”

The book never fails to remind us that photography is an ally of journalists and nationalists alike. It provides us with concise insights into the emergence of photojournalism and its key proponents in mid-20th century. In Proof and Propaganda, the authors place William H Burke’s pictures of George V and Queen Mary, sitting at the Delhi Durbar in 1911, overlooking their subjects, opposite Narayan Virkar’s photograph of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre eight years later.

Gaskell says this is one of his favourite spreads. “We see photography being used both as propaganda to further the colonial agenda [with Burke’s image], and as witness to show the more truthful realities of the British in India [with Virkar’s image],” he said. “These images show two sides of photography’s relationship with colonialism, and also the dichotomy of photography itself – caught as it is between fact and fiction.”

Other photojournalists showcased include Felice Beato (who photographed the aftermath of the First War of Independence), Willoughby Wallace Hooper (who photographed the Madras famine), Homai Vyarawalla (India’s first female photojournalist), Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White (who photographed the freedom movement and Partition), Sunil Janah (Bengal famine, the freedom movement and the Nehruvian era), Werner Bischof (Bihar famine), Kishor Parekh (Wars of 1962 and 1965, Bihar famine of 1966-’67, creation of Bangladesh), Marilyn Silverstone (Dalai Lama’s escape, Indian and foreign elite) and Sati Sahni (war correspondent and documenter of political events in Kashmir).

The essay Proof and Propaganda, along with the brief biographies of each photographer’s life and work, gives us a glimpse into debates surrounding photojournalism – photographic afterlife of an event, ethics of staging events, representation, covering deprivation, censorship, and the economy of “newsworthy” images, along with the business of photojournalism.

Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni. Velankani E-14A, from The Ethnographic Series, 2000-14 or Returning from the Tank G-1, from The Ethnographic Series, 2000–14. © Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni. Courtesy: Pushpamala N.

The introduction to the book ends with a disclaimer that this isn’t a conclusive work, and any form of categorisation leaves people out. Gaskell and Gujral are keen to explain what these exclusions are.

For Gujral, it was throwing more light on the supposed exclusion of women in the photographic scene of the 19th and early 20th century. “The opposite is the case,” she said. “In the very early years of photography practice in India, a number of women established themselves as ‘zenana photographers’, offering to photograph Indian women without them having to enter the public sphere. Deen Dayal, for example, worked with a Mrs Kenny-Levick, about whom little is known except that she was the ‘zenana photographer’ of his business. But little work by these women remains, except for advertisements in newspapers that point to their businesses.”

Given that the authors had decided to include only photographs whose photographer or studio was known, anonymous works were often left out. “A lot of Indian photographic history is written by images, whose authors are now anonymous – small studios, press photography before magazines and newspapers credited their image makers, and the wealth of fascinating vernacular photography, where the name of the image-maker has become separated from the image,” said Gaskell. “This kind of anonymous photography could be a book in itself.”