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Saturday, October 15, 2011

The People of India - An Introduction

The People of India series was researched and written by School Without Walls student, Cal Berer.   Cal was an intern at the Freer|Sackler Archives from January 2011-June 20011 where he was then sponsored by the State Department to learn Hindi while spending the summer in India.

When I first encountered the People of India collection a few months ago, I was astounded and impressed.  I remember thinking to myself, "what an enormous undertaking this must have been, and how eagerly it must have been received."  Well, I was right and I was wrong.  It was a truly herculean task, a massive expenditure of money and manpower, and the actualization of over twenty years of documentary ambitions within British India.  It had its stops and its starts, frustrations and triumphs, and at times it seemed as if the project was doomed to remain forever suspended in the limbo between commencement and completion.  Furthermore, POI was, like most long-term endeavors, constantly shifting and evolving; it was shaped by the times and the climate (both literally and figuratively), which were, as always, highly liquid.  The final volume published in 1875 bore almost no resemblance to its younger, 1861 self.  But, for all the excitements of the publication process, the People of India was a failure in nearly every sense of the word.  It was not eagerly received, not at all.  This made almost no sense to me, since clearly the Empire was in dire need of such a tome.  However, upon reflection (and after reading John Falconer's invaluable "A Publishing History of The People of India”), its commercial, scientific, and artistic bellyflop can be explained.  Over the course of this article, I will discuss the historical background surrounding the project, and summarize the publication process,.  In doing so I hope to partially explain why one of the greatest photographic efforts of the 19th century went unappreciated.  So, without further ado, I present The People of India (Abridged!)
The first step in understanding a piece of art is placing it in the proper context, and in the case of POI that happens to be India, 1861.  India, 1861.  Not exactly the picture of tranquility.  Four years earlier, the Sepoy Uprising had torn the subcontinent asunder.  Close to a century of mutual misunderstanding, acts of imperial barbarism, and the pursuit of what one might call British Manifest Destiny all found an outlet in the Great Mutiny.  Both sides committed atrocities.  An entire British army surrendered, only to be slaughtered without mercy.  The English decimated Mughal Delhi, in an act of cultural (and, in some cases, literal) genocide. In short, the context we’re dealing with is not pleasant, and from this we can construe the actual motivation for the project.  Lord Canning, the newly appointed, post-war Governor-General, expressed a desire for a “private collection” that might help recall the “the peculiarities of Indian life.”  It is relatively clear that his impetus was almost exclusively the product of a strong interest, perhaps even a love, of India.  However, the final product was anything but the small, private collection he initially wished for.  It mushroomed into a nationwide, government-wide, and in the words of John Falconer, “almost biblical” undertaking.  The reason for this massive expansion?  As the saying goes, the proof is in the context. 
The most immediate and lasting consequence of the Rebellion was the deposition of the British East India Company, and its subsequent replacement by direct English governance.  The new regime was eager to assert its dominance, and many scholars call the project a perfect example of how “the Victorian mind attempted-both avowedly and implicitly – to accumulate, organize, and use ethnological information in ways which both justified and reinforced notions of dominance.”  Depressing though it may be, this ugly Victorian habit was certainly one of the primary impetai (I know impetai isn’t a word, but it should be) for the project.  Each photo series is accompanied by text explaining the tribe or individual pictured, and quite often these descriptions include sweeping generalizations about the alcoholism practiced by one tribe, or the stupidity and laziness of another.  Only in a few cases do the photographers express respect for their subjects, and even then it is tinged with that special brand of pedantic arrogance reserved for the Angrezi.  It should be noted that the collection of this information was meant to do more than simply justify British dominance in India.  POI was, in many ways, an attempt by the English to understand the land they had come to rule.  After all, the catalyst for the Sepoy Mutiny was a gross misunderstanding of indigenous culture.  Perhaps if the government became more aware of its people, future conflicts could be avoided.  The rising popularity of photography as an instrument of science certainly facilitated this process. 
The daguerreotype was announced in 1839, but it took some time to gain traction in India.  The early 1850s saw the beginning of widespread photographic enterprises on the subcontinent, both amateur and professional.  Many of these pioneers were employed by the government, which saw photography as a way to document the land, both ethnically and topographically.  POI was certainly influenced by earlier projects, such as Richard King’s Queries Respecting the Human Races, to be Addressed to Travelers and Others, an 1844 photo-accompanied document.  King sought to raise awareness about the many tribes being unintentionally driven to extinction by British colonial practices.  A few members of each featured tribe would be photographed in profile, to emphasize the physical differences among various groups, and the final product was organized geographically.  This is almost exactly the same procedure used in the making of POI, the only difference is the scope and the purpose, POI encompassing much more, and representing a more utilitarian agenda.   Ten years later, The East India Company directed the Bombay Government to begin utilizing photography to document the cave temples of western India.  Until 1854, Bombay had been having artists produce painstaking sketches of the temples, but the advent of photography, as well as the Company’s provision of the necessary equipment, greatly expedited the process.  And such sanctions were not unique to Bombay; by 1856, all three presidencies of British India were home to their own photographic studios.  More and more authorities on the subject began advocating the marriage of photography and ethnography.  The final prefiguration of POI occurred, once more, in Bombay, spearheaded by two men, William Johnson and William Henderson.  The two Williams ran The Indian Amateurs Photographic Album, a journal intended to document the various races, castes, and occupations among the indigenous peoples.  The journal ran from 1856 until 1859, each issue containing three original prints, and a series of written articles to accompany them.  Enter The People of India. 
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
Freer|Sackler Archives


  1. So interested to see that the "People of India" will be highlighted in the upcoming months. I took a course on 19th century photography in Asia in undergrad, and this volume, as well as Falconer's text were central to the course. If you haven't read it yet, I also suggest:
    -Anne Maxwell's "Colonial Photography and Exhibitions," esp. the chapter, "A lens on the other: photographs of non-western peoples by anthropologists and travellers,"
    -Falconer's "Pioneers of Indian Photography" in "India: Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900.
    -Elizabeth Edwards' Anthropology and Photography
    -Chris Pinney's "Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photography,"
    -and J. Ryan's "Picturing Empire"

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Catherine Shteynberg
    Smithsonian Institution Archives

  2. Thank you for the reading suggestions! The Archives is familiar with a few of these pieces, but I look forward to checking out the others.

    Rachael Woody
    F|S Archives