In June, 1861, Lord Canning sent out a memorandum to every provincial administrator in country, containing a list of interesting tribes, with the request to enlist photographers to document each tribe. He also asked for a "brief written description of the tribe represented, their origin, physical characteristics, and general habits." Even in these early stages, the project quickly took on a much more official bearing than Canning had originally intended. In fact, within a few months it was decided that the collection would be displayed at the International Exhibition, held in London the following year. The project was so poorly managed, however, that only a few prints ever ended up being sent, and even fewer arrived in time to be put on public display. This lack of efficiency was consistent throughout the years spent working on POI. It took seven years to publish the first volume, and an additional eight to publish the next seven. This had partly to do with the slowness of the photographers themselves, and partly with the high cost of printing. At any rate, such a tremendous gap had much to do with the collection's failure. According to Falconer, "public interest in India may have been high in the years immediately after the Mutiny, but by the time the final volume appeared in the mid 1870s, popular interest in an arcane topic had no doubt largely dissipated." Another factor may have been the quality of the photographs. The artists employed were, for the most part, not artists at all. They were amateur photographs, government employees, and soldiers. As such, they had great difficulty coping with the trying climate, unwilling subjects, and geographical obstacles that a classically trained photographer might have been able to overcome. One might think that any and all aesthetic shortcomings would be compensated for by scientific merit, but with POI, this was not so. One of the editors himself, John Forbes Watson, admitted that the work lacked the "scientific character, such as would attend a similar collection of an Ethnological Survey were carried out." This lack manifested itself in two ways. First, the descriptions of the tribes themselves were often far from scientific. Many dealt with the character of the individual represented. For instance, volume seven contains "over forty portraits from Central India by James Waterhouse, with the Begum of Bhopal, her family and her court, represented by no fewer than eight studies." This surplus of portraits corresponds with the second manifestation: the coverage of the subcontinent was by no means proportional, with particular attention given to particular regions for the sake of convenience and available materials. Because the Mutiny took place largely in the north, that's where most of the photographers operated, the end result being a seriously imbalanced representation of the country.
Despite all its failures, Falconer maintains that "the work remains a landmark of nineteenth century Indian photography and its interface with ethnology and issues of colonial control." And this has certainly proved to be POI's legacy. Now more than ever, it would be preposterous to attempt to glean scientific knowledge from the collection. It was racist, considerably inaccurate, and infected by the biases of the times. But, it does tell us quite a bit about the development of photography as a tool of science and an instrument of art. It also sheds some light on the science of ethnology as it was in the 19th century. In the end, I believe that The People of India has proved to be a tremendous success. It just didn't seem that way at the time.
The People of India series will be published once a month highlighting the various tribes as they're covered in the People of India.
Cal Berer, Intern