Photo Essay – The Delhiwallas, Then & Now
The way we were.
[Text and coloured photos by Mayank Austen Soofi; black & white photos by India Photo Archive Foundation]
“A photograph never grows old,” said Albert Einstein. “You and I change, people change all through the months and years, but a photograph always remains the same.”
But the way we look at photos does change. The Delhi Walla recently walked into an exhibition called Re-imaging: The People of India (1850-2013). It displayed pictures taken in the 1850s and 1860s next to images taken in early 2013 by four photographers. The exhibition was organized by the India Photo Archive Foundation. It presented the 19th century “bunnea”, “marwaree” and “scarf maker”, as seen by British lensmen, along with the 21st century Baniya, Marwari and weaver, as seen by Indian photographers.
“The project interprets our people from widely contrasting standpoints in terms of space and time,” said curator Aditya Arya, a Gurgaon-based archivist. “The ones who ruled us and their observation and now our own self-reflection.”
The People of India, an eight-volume work, was compiled in 1868-75 by military and civilian British photographers. Conceived as a personal collection of the governor general, Lord Charles John Canning, it became an official British government publication. “This was the first photographic documentation of the ethnography of India,” says the exhibition catalogue.
In the 20 colonial-era images selected, the subjects look as expressionless as the National Geographic portraits of yesteryear when white photographers explored the lands of brown people and captured them in chadors and topis.
In a short essay, Caste And Camera: 163 Years Later, in the catalogue, artist Madhav Tankha, who designed the catalogue, writes: “The colonial photographs are…marked by a lack of focus on the facial expressions of their subjects as well as on larger environmental elements not relevant to their social identity. Thus, dress and occupation (and in later colonial projects, bone structure) become important for the photographer.”
The Jats, Gujjars and others featured in the 60 modern photos, too, are trapped in their social and ethnic identities. But you only have to invite yourself into the intimacy of their eyes to discover that these men and women are richer than the sum of their anthropological detail.
Although The People of India project covered large parts of India, Mr Arya selected only the Delhi pictures from the vast collection. This enabled the exhibition’s present-day photographers to confine themselves to a single city as they searched for barbers, carpenters, dancers and snake charmers. (I haven’t shown the exhibition’s ‘new’ photos because of copyright reasons but I have included a few of mine in this piece so that you can juxtapose them with the old pictures and have some fun.)
The sepia-stained photos by the Britishers were originally accompanied with brief observations about the “natives”. Sample this: “These men (hill porter) eat anything except the flesh of the ox and its kind, and are filthy in their habits, often not washing or changing their clothes for weeks together. As a class, they are as poor as they are ignorant.”
It is those European photographers who were ignorant.
Different times, different peoples