Malavika Karlekar’s book is a series of snapshots—I use the term deliberately —of not just colonial and post-Independence India, but of the history of photography itself. In the Introduction we are informed of Karlekar’s assumptions: ‘the mandate of Empire necessitated the introduction of several institutions, innovations, and styles of life into the colonies. The camera and the studio became necessary prostheses in this new engagement between peoples’ (p. xiv). From this assumption Karlekar begins her survey of the visual regimes of the Empire in India.
Starting with studies of the colonial bungalow, camps and other residential structures of the Raj, Karlekar moves on to ethnography and criminology where ‘fixing’ the identity of tribes as criminal becomes, in her view, one of the pre-eminent uses of photography. Exoticization of the native, especially women, in the form of postcards, served, Karlekar says tongue- in-cheek, as tropes for the ‘most prized jewel in Victoria’s increasingly heavy crown’ (p. 13).
The essays on Raja Deen Dayal document his interests in the ruling classes but also middle class lives and families. The studio, says Karlekar, was a space where ‘cultural and social differences melded, even though briefly’ in what she believes was a certain ‘democratic ambience’ (p. 22). Moving on to ancillary items, such as props and backdrops, Karlekar argues, constructed different realities of India. Commercial exhibitions enabled colonial photographers like Captain Tripe to share information and expertise in the new art form. She then moves on to portraiture and scenic/nature photography, and military photography in the wake of 1857, especially the famous work of Felice Beato. This archive, notes Karlekar, ‘added a vital dimension to many textual accounts to an eager … public back in Britain’ (p. 56). Narratives and counter-narratives in the form of visual texts enabled mourning and celebration, despair and delirium in the critical years after 1857, Karlekar’s essays suggest. Recovery from the tumultuous years required reiterating the agenda of colonial spirit and colonial ‘work’, as Karlekar notes in the case of postcards from medical missionaries and others. The climactic essay of this section, quite rightly, is on the Imperial Durbar of 1877 wherein Karlekar argues, using Talboys Wheeler’s history of the event, that a panoply of the Raj was crafted ignoring the famine and the distress of the colonial subjects.
In Section Two, Imaging India, Karlekar looks at public and personal-private photographs, family collections and studio photography. Particularly fascinating are her crisp accounts of photographing the Mahatma, artists like Rukmini Arundale, and distinguished families such as the Tagores and the Dutts. She begins with photography and the ruling elite families of the Dutts in Bengal. New self-images, she argues, were made possible for these families and classes due to the availability of the studio and the photograph. In some cases, such as the Tagores, she notes, the photograph served the purpose of making them ‘appear like friendly neigh-bours—and not merely the subjects or victims—of hagiography’ (p. 95). In some cases, such as the Tyabjis, photography was used to demonstrate the modernization of the family. For women increasingly involved in public life and professions like teaching, photography became a method of documenting this role. For Karlekar, therefore, the visual archive becomes a history of Indian womanhood in its multiple dimensions, roles and contests (for contests there were plenty, both within and outside the family).There was also extensive photographing of ayahs, servants, labour and others directly (women working) or indirectly (carefully positioned within staged sets for photographs), Karlekar notes. Widows and others also found their place in the visual archive, as did dancers and other artists. Similarly sacred spaces such as Banaras found their representations in the new medium.
The photographic eye also penetrated the veil, as Karlekar notes in the case of visuals of parda-nashin women of various classes. Karlekar links the technologies of representation such as the photograph or the studio ‘coincided with significant familial and spatio-temporal changes across class and cultural boundaries’ (p. 137). Changes in the house, professions and marriage, says Karlekar, were reflected in the studio photographs and constituted important ‘social markers’ (p. 137). Gandhi in photographs, specifically Margaret Bourke-White’s of the last day of his life, constitutes the subject of a chapter, followed by a chapter on the Partition’s visual records. These are followed by chapters on Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman press photographer and Sunil Janah.
Visual Histories is written in lucid prose, making theoretical points about the gaze, commercialization, staging and identity without use of jargon. While works from Christopher Pinney, Kajri Jain and others have offered detailed studies of the visual histories of colonial and postcolonial India, Karlekar’s more journalistic style has its own appeal and will find its own audience. Karlekar’s insistence that we see these visual texts as social history and even ‘public history’ is noteworthy. The ways in which she inserts developments in technique—studio, portraiture, set pieces, nature photographs—into social contexts of changes in professions, women’s roles, familial settings and the Empire enable us to see even the family’s visual record as a document in a larger history. The inter-textual nature of the photograph itself—its refer-entiality, in the case of Empire, to memoirs, autobiographies, military documents—is also something Karlekar draws attention to. Eschewing the purely technical—for which of course readers can go to James Elkins—for the ideological-interpretative reading makes Karlekar’s work interesting. The only thing I missed was some more on iconography—of the Mahatma, for example, or the dams in Nehruvian era—and its role in nation-building.
Visual Histories can serve as an important text for researchers questing for domains of study in colonial history, media and cultural studies.
Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad and is the author of, most recently, Frantz Fanon (Routledge 2013), Posthumanism (Polity 2013), Digital Cool: Life in the Age of New Media (Orient BlackSwan 2013) and the editor of The ‘Mutiny’ Novels (DC Books, 2013).