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Imaging Imperial India
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Imaging Imperial India

A revealing exhibition of 135 photographs of the Indian subcontinent taken at the time of British rule -the British Empire or Raj-will be on view at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) from Dec. 3 through March 25, 2001, "India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 - 1911." Produced during the golden age of early photography and set in a time and place that markedly contrasts with our own, these dramatic images are both beautiful and profound.

"India proved fertile ground for the advent of photography in the second half of the 19th century," says Milo Beach, director of the Sackler Gallery and the neighboring Freer Gallery of Art. "This exhibition explores the intertwined roles of photography and colonialism while recognizing this substantial body of photographs from India as works of art and rescuing them from their status as mere documentary aids for research."

Drawing from a number of sources, including the Freer and Sackler's rich collections and the collections of the British Library's Oriental and India Office, curator Vidya Dehejia, deputy director of the Freer and Sackler galleries, has chosen to highlight the 19th century British obsession with the documentation of architecture, landscape and imperial might. The appeal of the panoramic photograph-a popular public entertainment spectacle-to record development projects, natural scenery and cityscapes is underscored, as is the imperative to record images of India's princes and maharajas, and their imperial conquerors in ceremonial and recreational settings.

The British compulsion to analyze the ethnography of the Indian subcontinent and surrounding islands using the device of the camera is also clearly evident in these works. Jarringly frank, and to the modern eye inappropriate images of indigenous people posed as "anthropological specimens" by photographer Maurice Vidal Portman and others reveal the long-outdated attitudes of superiority toward the local population. More dignified poses recorded in Sindh by Henry Charles Baskerville Tanner are also on view.

While analyzing the equipment and techniques available to the photographers of the day, Dehejia also presents the work of a number of military and amateur photographers including Thomas Biggs, William Pigou, Linnaeus Tripe, John Murray and Donald Horne Macfarlane. India is also seen through the lens of several outstanding professional photographers, including Samuel Bourne, whose early pictures of the Himalayas bear a striking resemblance to Ansel Adam's photographs of the American landscape. Bourne, who spent seven years in India, had a broad repertoire that also included picturesque landscapes, British settlements and stations; Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and colonial architecture; tea and cinchona plantations; and shipping operations. With the exception of the occasional studio portrait, Indians are remarkably absent from the portfolio of this Englishman who retired to Nottingham to operate a cotton yarn factory.

Another professional represented in the exhibition is Felice Beato. Beato was probably Italian but learned his trade from a Scottish brother-in-law while helping, among other things, to photograph the Crimean War. Beato spent more than two years in India. His works, naturally dependent on the demands of the market, emphasized the British view of the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. His disturbing photographs of former battle scenes-to which he sometimes added disinterred bones for dramatic effect-his topographical and architectural subjects, and his portraits of leading British generals and officers were sold as un-mounted prints that could be assembled by the buyer to create a personal record.

Indian by birth, professional photographer Lala Deen Dayal was caught between two worlds. Deen Dayal's patrons included not only the ruling British elite and the British government, which commissioned him to take numerous pictorial records of ancient buildings, monuments and temples, but also the extravagantly wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad. Admitted to record the activities of the highest echelons of both societies, Deen Dayal's photographs include images of the British viceroy, Lord Curzon and Lady Curzon, on a tiger hunt, as well as the nizam's sumptuous grand salon.

The accompanying book, containing 135 full-page photographic illustrations and a wide variety of in-depth essays by Dehejia and other leading international scholars, is published by the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Mapin Publishing and Prestel Verlag. Publication of the book is supported by a major grant from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. "India Through the Lens" is made possible in part by generous grants from Hughes Network Systems and an anonymous donor, with additional support from Sigrid and Vinton Cerf. Significant funds for this project have been made available through the Else Sackler Public Affairs Endowment of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.

The Freer Gallery of Art (12th Street and Independence Avenue S.W.) and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave. S.W.) together form the national museum of Asian art for the United States. The Freer also houses a major collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American art. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day except Christmas Day, Dec. 25, and admission is free. Public tours are offered daily. The galleries are located near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information, the public may call 202.357.2700 or TTY 202.357.1729, or visit the galleries' Web site at

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