Illuminating India @ the Science Museum

Illuminating India

Illuminating India is a season of exhibitions and events being held at London’s Science Museum to celebrate India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.

At its heart are two FREE major exhibitions: 5,000 Years of Science and Innovation and Photography 1857–2017. The first consists of one large room presenting a history of scientific breakthroughs in India; the second consists of three exhibition spaces presenting a selection of photography from its arrival in India in the 1830s through to the present day.

In addition to the exhibitions there’s a season of India-themed events, including film screenings, music and dance performances, conversations with experts and more.

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Wedding Portrait of an Indian Couple (c.1920-40) Unknown photographer and artist © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Photography in India: 1857-2017

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  1. Power and Performance
  2. Art and Independence
  3. Modern and Contemporary

(I am often struck by how exhibitions and books about the arts must have alliterative titles cf. the Passion, Power and Politics exhibition just across the road at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

1. Power and Performance

Shortly after its invention in Britain in 1839, photography arrived in India. It was used to document the people and places of the vast sub-continent and as a record of colonial conflicts, particularly of the great Mutiny of 1857. It’s this the show opens with, presenting photographs of the ruined garrisons at some of the key battlefields of the Uprising, such as Cawnpore and Delhi. There’s a map and history briefly explaining the background and course of the Uprising.

Photos were taken by British officers like John Murray, but I was struck to learn that some were taken by Felice Beato, who I came across for his photos of the First Opium War. He was one of the first war photographers and generally staged his photos to conform to artistic conventions.

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bara Imambara after the Indian Mutiny, Lucknow, India (1858) Felice Beato © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

There are photos of Bahadur Shah Zafar who was rather forced into becoming a figurehead for the rebels which meant that, when the Uprising was finally quelled, members of his family were executed and he – the last descendant of the Mughal emperors – was deposed.

The heyday of imperial control of India was from about 1860 to 1900 and this is reflected in the work of British photographers like Samuel Bourne and Maurice Vidal Portman. Bourne accompanied expeditions up into the Himalayas where he took breath-taking panoramas of the spectacular views, some of which were made up into books and sold to armchair explorers. Photos and bound books of them are on display here.

Portman was a fascinating character, a naval officer who was put in charge of the Andaman Islands and their inhabitants at the age of 19! He was tasked with managing the islands and their inhabitants at a time when several prison camps were established for those imprisoned by the Raj in India. Over the next twenty years he took numerous photos of the native Andamanese, for the British Government and the British Museum.

Portman got to know the natives well and wrote two books on their languages as well as building up a significant collection of ethnographic objects during his time on the Andaman Islands which are now in the British Museum. The selection of his work here emphasises the sinister application of photography, used to photograph islanders from the front and side on, alongside measuring their facial features, skull shape and size and so on, all part of the late 19th century obsession with race.

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Ilech, girl of the Ta-Yeri tribe by Maurice Vidal Portman

Meanwhile, a completely different genre grew up which adapted the colour palette  of traditional Indian painting to the new technology: basically, photographs of Indians which were then extensively touched up or painted over to create a distinctive hybrid form.

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (1849-1930) by Bourne & Shepherd © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

There are lots of examples of this kind of thing, depicting many of India’s 700 or so ‘princes’, images which were made for them as portraits but also reversioned in books, used in family ‘cabinets’ or made into postcards for their subjects to buy. The style carried on well into the 20th century as the example at the top of this review demonstrates.

2. Art and Independence

As cameras got smaller and cheaper more Indians were able to set up as commercial and even art photographers. This second section is sub-divided into two: examples of native photographers (Art) and a roomful of photos devoted to portraying Gandhi and Indian Independence (Independence).

The photographer Shapoor N. Bhedwar is represented by a suite of photographs depicting middle-class Indian life at the turn of the century. His studied compositions clearly borrow from the conventions of late Victorian painting.

'The Mystic Sign' from the 'Art Studies' album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

‘The Mystic Sign’ from the ‘Art Studies’ album (c.1890) by Shapoor N Bhedwar © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

A wall is devoted to works by a photographer called Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II who developed an approach based on self-portraits taken over many years, in a variety of guises and Indian costumes.

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

Self-portrait as a Shiva bhakt (c.1870) by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II © Trustees, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur

The second part of this section is devoted to photographs depicting the very end of the career of Mahatma Gandhi, including his funeral, along with photos of the independence on India in 1947 and of the ruinous partition of the sub-continent.

Gandhi was well aware of the importance of imagery in the ‘modern’ world (of the 1930s and 40s). As the curators point out, it’s no mistake that at the end of his life he was being accompanied by not one but two of the pre-eminent photojournalists of the day, Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose works are liberally represented.

The curators take the opportunity to juxtapose these two super well-known westerners with works by India’s first female photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla.

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

Lord Mountbatten among jubilant crowds outside the Parliament House, Delhi, 15 August 1947 by Homai Vyarawalla © Alkazi Foundation for the Arts

3. Modern and Contemporary

The next space is also sub-divided. The first room contains lots of images from the 1950s and 60s. Gandhi had campaigned on a platform of returning India to its spiritual roots and to an economy based on self-sufficiency and village crafts. But the first prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (PM from 1947 to 1964) took diametrically the opposite view and set about transforming India into a modern industrialised economy, along with nuclear power and its own space programme.

Hence a wall of wonderful black-and-white photos taken by Werner Bischof and Madan Mahatta of industrial landscapes, building sites, railroad sidings, power plants. A kind of sub-set of these was a couple of b&w photos taken Lucien Hervé. Looking him up on Wikipedia I discover he was French but of Hungarian origin, and I wonder if that accounts for the highly constructivist style of the photos, which remind me of the Bauhaus style of his great compatriot, László Moholy-Nagy.

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

High Court, Chandigarh, 1955 by Lucien Hervé © J. Paul Getty Trust

In the next room we come to big colour photos from the 1980s onwards. Two names stand out, Rajhibir Singh and an American called Mitch Epstein. Epstein worked in films and took a cinematic approach to staging and lighting his large, bold compositions. He was, apparently, part of a movement called American New Colour.

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981 by Mitch Epstein. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas Zander, Köln

New Indian Photography

In the final room was a generous selection from the work of three contemporary Indian photographers. As with most art nowadays, it’s not enough to just paint a painting or take a photo, you have to devise a project.

Sohrab Hura (Indian b.1981) worked on a ‘two-chapter’ personal project called Sweet Life from 2005 to 2014. Chapter 1, Life Is Elsewhere (2005 to 2011), focuses on his relationship with his mother who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. A second chapter, Look, It’s Getting Sunny Outside!!! (2008 to 2014) chronicles the improvement of her mental health. An extensive selection from both works is shown on a video screen, along with accompanying commentary.

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Image 5 from Sweet Life © Sohrab Hura

Olivia Arthur (British, born 1980) is represented by a wall of photos which represent, or hint at, the suppressed LGBT+ sexualities of India, specifically in the port city of Mumbai. At one time India’s ‘city of dreams’, according to the wall label an increasingly reactionary political movement in Mumbai has led to the recriminalisation of homosexuality. Hence Arthur’s photos try to capture marginal places and private moments where this now-subterranean sub-culture can be seen, or at least inferred.

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Ishan photographed at his parents home in Bombay (2016) by Olivia Arthur © Magnum Photos

Vasantha Yogananthan (b.1985) had the bright idea of retelling the ancient Hindu epic poem the Ramayana through contemporary photos, and titling the (ongoing) series, A Myth of Two Souls. Thus two walls of large colour photos by him show images which are completely contemporary in feel, but which have captions quoting from key moments in the ancient story.

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananth

Cricket Match, Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, India (2013) from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

As a set, these were probably the most consistently interesting and stimulating photographs in the exhibition. Yogananthan’s photos are simultaneously modest, homely, undramatic but wonderfully composed and atmospheric. Which is why I’ve included two.

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015, from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

Rama Combing His Hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015 from the series A Myth of Two Souls by Vasantha Yogananthan

If you like India, and you like photography, what are you waiting for? It’s a terrific show and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE.

The exhibition video


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More about the photographers

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Only in England @ the Science Museum

This is a fabulous exhibition of black and white photographs of ordinary English life in the 1960s and 70s. It’s divided into three sections:

  1. Photos of English life by pioneering b&w photographer Tony Ray-Jones, taken 1965-69.
  2. Early photos by English photographer Martin Parr, from his first work, The Non-Conformists, a five-year project to photograph the people and life of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire from 1974-79.
  3. Photos by Ray-Jones selected by Parr from the 2,500 negatives held in the Ray-Jones archive in Bradford, and exhibited here for the first time.
Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Blackpool, 1968 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

1. Tony Ray-Jones (1942-72)

Tony Ray-Jones died in 1972 from leukaemia, aged just 30. After studying photography in England in the late 1950s he went for further study in New York between 1961 and 1964. The exhibition explains that in America ‘the street’ was much more a focus of outdoor life and community and was much more photographed and described than in rainy England.

When he returned to the UK in 1965, Ray-Jones was determined to apply the American aesthetic to record the quirks and character of English street life and his pioneering approach to the drama and narrative of ‘ordinary’ life became hugely influential on all succeeding photographers.

The exhibition commentary picks out the importance of the seaside resort as a kind of quintessence of Englishness and the exhibition is full of images of stoic holidaymakers braving bad weather while drinking tea. In image after image Ray-Jones captures that special atmosphere of drizzle and disappointment only to be experienced in a rainy English seaside resort. As Martin Parr points out in the short film which accompanies the exhibition, England’s seaside resorts are often less changed than inland towns. In some ways being at the seaside is like travelling back in time.

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Beauty contestants, Southport, Merseyside, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones spent the later 1960s travelling extensively all over England, observing human beings in all their eccentricity and quirkiness. He was photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life, aware of the onrushing encroachment of Americanisation, of consumerism, of white goods and conveniences which was replacing the England of back-to-backs, outside loos and heavy prams.

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ramsgate, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Ray-Jones made extensive preparations for his visits to each location, treating his work almost as an anthropologist’s project, setting out to learn about the place and people he was about to study. The exhibition shows his notebooks along with lists of books and articles to read. He was also fond of writing lists of dos and don’ts to himself:

  • stay with the subject matter
  • be patient
  • vary composition – Be aware of composition
  • Get in closer. ‘If a photograph isn’t interesting enough you’re not close enough’ – Robert Capa
Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Location unknown, possibly Morecambe, 1967 – 68 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

I think two closely-related things are going on in these photos, to do with narrative and composition.

  1. Narrative The commentary talks about the influence of film, comedy, maybe even cartoons on Ray-Jones’s eye for narrative, by which it means his eye for dynamic interaction between his human subjects. Something is always happening, often something ordinary and small, but something dynamic nonetheless: the woman in the second row of deckchairs giving us a baleful look; the beauty contestant wiping her mouth while the young man at the counter admires her bum and the old man sips his tea oblivious to both; lots of things in the Ramsgate photo; and the interplay between the four men and dog in the Morecambe photo can also be studied and pondered and enjoyed for some time. These photos are wonderful because they show us how rich and strange and complicated the most mundane of human moments are.
  2. Composition The frame is full with incident always occurring at the edge. Your eye is drawn to the people at the edges, and then back to the central figure(s), who are often interacting with figures at the periphery, after looking at which you look again at the central figures – in a repeating loop, as you discover more and more disconcerting or odd or amusing details – making the experience of looking at these photos very dynamic and rich. Another photographer might have been content to frame the three beauty contestants, as quite a lot is going on with just them. But Ray-Jones widens the frame to include the old man drinking tea and the whole group at the desk or cupboard, turning a snap into something more like a short story with half a dozen characters all interacting in ways only their glances and looks and bodily attitudes can reveal.

2. Martin Parr b.1952

Martin Parr is, according to the exhibition, one of the most successful and interesting photographers working today. Born ten years after Ray-Jones, he was inspired by his photography course at Manchester poly in 1973 to be more personal, to incorporate elements of narrative into his pictures. He had discovered Ray-Jones’s photos in the year of his death and was very influenced by their power and depth. The exhibition features a set of prints from Parr’s first work, a five-year-long study of life among the hill farmers and non-conformist chapels of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire which resulted in a book The Non-Conformists.

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Mankinholes Methodist Chapel, Todmorden 1975 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Like Ray-Jones, Parr also felt he was documenting a vanishing way of life, visibly so as the congregations in the chapels aged and died and weren’t replaced by the young, distracted by the ever-widening consumer culture. I loved photos of the Hebden Bridge Mouse show and pigeon competition or an evocative image of the 1977 jubilee celebration tables abandoned in pouring rain. Parr’s prints are bigger and easier to read and enjoy than the early Ray-Jones ones, which required a bit of bending into and using glasses. Not only are they bigger but their use of space is cleaner and more monumental. He tends to have one person or only a few people as the focus, unlike the impression of teeming multitudes given by many of the Ray-Jones’ photos.

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

Tom Greenwood cleaning 1976 by Martin Parr © Martin Parr/ Magnum

3. Martin Parr selects Tony Ray-Jones

In the third part of the exhibition, Parr was invited to make a new selection of over 50 previously unseen works from the National Media Museum’s Ray-Jones archive. This archive holds some 2,500 contact prints, vastly more than the 80 or so photos included in Ray-Jones’s only published work A Day Off: An English Journal, unfinished at the time of his death and published posthumously in 1974.

The short film in the exhibition has Parr sharing the excitement of opening and seeing some of the collection for the first time, being amazed by not only the number of images, but the memorabilia and especially the notebooks which Ray-Jones kept. The images from this section were printed bigger than the earlier vintage stuff, remastered or something to make the prints the same size as the Parr ones. This made them easier to see, allowing the viewer to enjoy the drama and narrative of the compositions.

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Eastbourne Carnival, 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

The commentary points out that Ray-Jones was also attracted to the ‘Season’ of regular annual fixtures – Epsom, Ascot, Crufts, Chelsea Flower Show –  which continually throw up the dysjunction between the ‘glamour’ or ideal version of events, and the mundane and sometimes bizarre realities as men carry heavy pots of flowers to and fro or groups of dogs cluster incongruously around their owners before going onstage.

But it’s the beach photos which, in the end, speak of something permanent in English life, a heedless provinciality, a blithe gracelessness, a lumpiness and ugliness and crudeness and vulgarity, which is in Chaucer’s dirty stories and Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals, an enduring part of the mongrel English character – which speaks to us of a pre-media, pre-celebrity, pre-image-obsessed era, of a kind of innocence which seems fragile and precious, and which Tony Ray-Jones’s great works of art will record forever.

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

Brighton Beach, 1967 1967 by Tony Ray-Jones © National Media Museum

You get a useful overview from the YouTube video of the show.

The exhibition is now, unfortunately, closed in London, but is moving to the National Media Museum in Bradford where it opens on 28 March and runs until 29 June.

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