Illuminating India / Reviewed by Malcolm Cossons / 12.02.18
Celebrating the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, Illuminating India at the Science Museum consists of two exhibitions. The first explores the Subcontinent’s contribution to science, from the earliest use of the symbol for zero to the country’s current space programme. The second, larger, show is devoted to photography from 1857 to 2017, divided into three sections: Performance and Power, Art and Independence, and Modern and Contemporary. The first two cover significant moments in India’s history: the Uprising of 1857 and Independence in 1947. The final element explores the development of the country from the 1960s to the present.
Following its invention in the 1830s, photography spread quickly to India. The British used it as a tool to record the country and its inhabitants, while commercial and amateur Indian photographers also rapidly appeared. The exhibition opens with the 1857 rebellion of native troops against the British. Violently suppressed, the event entered the mythology of British India, as reflected in the photography of the time. The siege and relief of Lucknow, for instance, prompted Felice Beato to create images of the shattered buildings, photographing hanged Indians and disinterring the bones of dead mutineers for greater atmosphere. Beato’s shots are juxtaposed with those by one of the earliest Indian photographers, Ahmad Ali-Khan, who depicted the palaces and family of the Nawab of Lucknow prior to the upheaval.
Portraiture by both British and Indian photographers is a recurring subject in this exhibition. In these early years the British undertook an ethnographic project entitled The People of India to classify the population. This sits beside the work of Jaipur royal Ram Singh II, who photographed the court including the women of the zennana and, Cindy Sherman-like, created a series of self-portraits using a variety of costumes and personas.
The exhibition moves on to the 1940s, when India finally achieved independence. Photojournalists covering the protests against British rule, Partition and Gandhi’s assassination include Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke White, together with India’s first female practitioner, Homai Vyarawalla. The creative use of the medium is also shown, with portraiture again prominent. Perhaps most poignant are Umrao Singh Sher-Gill’s striking pictures of his artist daughter Amrita, who died aged 28.
The final section of the exhibition covers modern and contemporary photography. Examples from the 1960s celebrate newly independent India. The geometrical architecture and shadows of Le Courbusier’s Chandigarh are caught by Lucien Hervé, while Cartier-Bresson and Werner Bischoff show modern developments such as nuclear reactors as a backdrop to men and women in traditional dress.
Photography continues to thrive in India. Three contemporary artists are selected for this exhibition: Olivia Arthur examines homosexuality in Mumbai; Vasantha Yogananthan gives a modern twist to the Indian epic, the Ramayana; and Sohrub Hura, through screens and audio, explores her mother’s schizophrenia.
India has embraced photography from silver prints to pixels. Inspiring indigenous photographers and Imperial invaders, photojournalists and maharajahs, this survey gives context to over 150 years of creativity. Photography remains a field where India gives both inspiration and invention.
– reviewed by Malcolm Cossons