Shapoor N. Bhedwar, Tyag No. 4: The Mystic Sign, ca. 1890, black-and-white photograph, 10 1⁄4 x 13 1⁄2".

Shapoor N. Bhedwar, Tyag No. 4: The Mystic Sign, ca. 1890, black-and-white photograph, 10 1⁄4 x 13 1⁄2".

“The Artful Pose”

Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

Shapoor N. Bhedwar, Tyag No. 4: The Mystic Sign, ca. 1890, black-and-white photograph, 10 1⁄4 x 13 1⁄2".

A MELANCHOLY YOUNG WOMAN sits on the steps of a crumbling building, a pile of glistening fruit beside her. The folds of her white robe seem to glow. Do her garments symbolize purity? Is she a representation of the chaste goddess Diana? Instead of a toga, though, the snowy fabric swaddling her looks suspiciously like a sari—draped in the Gujarati style favored by the Parsi community in Mumbai. Shapoor N. Bhedwar’s Fair Fruitseller, ca. 1890—one of the photographs included in the recent exhibition “The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai, c. 1855–1940,” at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum—resonantly attests to the (often hilariously) hybrid nature of early photography in India.

Curated by Rahaab Allana and the museum’s honorary director, Tasneem Mehta, and sourced from the vast photography collection of the New Delhi–based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, the show deftly elucidated the tension between Victorian sensibilities and the subcontinent’s aesthetic ideals. This was piquantly evinced in The Fair Fruitseller, where what is ostensibly a portrayal of a working-class woman is somewhat comically overlaid with the trappings of bourgeois desirability. A little embroidered shoe peeks out from beneath the damsel’s soft, clinging sari, and a bracelet of pearls discreetly encircles her wrist—a rather too elaborate getup for a fruit seller, however fair.

The show was installed in the Kamalnayan Bajaj gallery, a splendid suite of rooms replete with gilt-edged awnings. The first room contained ethnographic studies, some quite compelling—e.g., The Kulis of the West of India, ca. 1866, which depicts statuesque fishermen bearing nets and oars, and Muhammadans of the Konkan, ca. 1866, an elegant grouping of Muslim worthies. Both images are by an unknown photographer (perhaps William Johnson, a founding member of the Bombay Photographic Society) and are gleaned from Johnson’s seminal book The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay. Images such as these were used by the British raj to document the various peoples under Britain’s dominion, a supposedly benign enterprise that nevertheless served to, per the old expression, “put the natives in their place.” Contemporary photography—for example, Pushpamala N.’s photo-performance Native Women of South India: Manners and Customs, 2000–2004—often spoofs such stereotyping. Yet colonial-era prints are rarely available for public viewing, so the opportunity to examine them and compare them in our mind’s eye with later pastiches was welcome. Strikingly, the subjects of these early portraits seemed just as theatrical, just as enthusiastic about staging themselves, as the contemporary artists who investigate this genre. The Muhammadans of the Konkan, posing against fake backdrops, seem as aware of their audience as Pushpamala N. does when she perches in front of crudely painted scenery.

The next room was entirely devoted to Bhedwar, whose photographs, which had never been exhibited before, show obvious similarities to the oil paintings and mass-produced prints of the Keralite artist Raja Ravi Varma (1848–1906), famed for his gloriously kitschy fusion of Indian themes with European academicism. The connection between nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century painting and photography, the nerve center of the show, was richly elucidated in Bhedwar’s snapshots. The series “Tyag” (meaning “sacrifice” in Sanskrit) tells the tale of a turbaned holy man who persuades fetching ladies to become his disciples. Tyag No. 4: The Mystic Sign, ca. 1890, shows dreamy women (all wearing sequined saris) gathered under a lampshade, gazing raptly at the barefoot guru. These allegorical narratives, rendered in shadowy chiaroscuro, are proof that, in India, painterly traditions once clasped hands happily with photography. Indeed, scholar Partha Mitter argues, the advent of photography in the subcontinent followed a completely different path than it did elsewhere. In Europe, the daguerreotype was a culmination of art’s quest for scientific perspective; its arrival paved the way for abstraction in painting and sculpture. In India, painterly academic naturalism and photography took off more or less simultaneously. While both genres also represented a “scientific” way of seeing associated with the British raj, in the West photography heralded the demise of realistic painting, whereas in India the two met, mingled, and cross-referenced each other gleefully, as symbols of a shared aesthetic sensibility.

Naturally, the Orientalism that inflected European academic painting in the nineteenth century also snuck into Indian photography of this period. Glancing quickly at Bhedwar’s long-haired femme fatale in Gool Guji—A Rose Bud, ca. 1890, with her exposed breast, negligently draped sari, and languid expression one is reminded of the sultry courtesans to be found in French painting (such as Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, 1834). If such exoticization is lampooned by many young practitioners today—among them the performance artist Nikhil Chopra, whose “Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing X Part 2” followed hot on the heels of “The Artful Pose” at the museum in Mumbai—it is also re-enacted for dramatic effect. Chopra, disguised as a crinoline-skirted lady picnicking on the museum’s lawns and busily drawing on a pad of paper, reflected on the historical portrayals of Victorian ladies drawing picturesque scenes of “the Orient” to send “home.” Onlookers could have been forgiven for assuming that one of Bhedwar’s lavish tableaux had miraculously sprung to life.

As Mitter also points out, the rise of Indian photography (ironically) ushered in a return to what the scholar dubs the “post-Mughal” styles of Rajasthani and Punjabi miniatures, in which primary colors, simple lines, and a flattening of space reigned supreme long before modernism. Funnily enough, the photograph—so prized elsewhere for its three-dimensional “accuracy”—was valued by the rich of India’s urban centers as a launching point for garish fantasies. These worthy folk had photographs of themselves painted over so that the sitters would resemble the royal personages in miniatures. The final section of “The Artful Pose,” which contained early-twentieth-century photographs taken in the studios of Bombay, presented images of this type. A group of ca. 1920–40 gelatin-silver prints showing seated women, for example, were gaudily handpainted by unknown artists. One stocky matron, parked in an embroidered chair and surrounded by a sapphire-hued haze, reminds one of a bejeweled matriarch on a crude throne. The seated lady unwittingly foreshadows the figures in a contemporary series of images: the socialites presented in the celebrated photographer Dayanita Singh’s Privacy, 2003. Singh portrays the women in her pictures as part of a luxurious world of objects, as inseparable from their affluence: The patterns on their clothes often echo those of the embellished artifacts in their stately homes. “To the manner born” (or so they would like us to believe), Singh’s women nonetheless recall the bulky bourgeois pretensions of their forerunner, who likewise appears both mistress and product of her surroundings. Perhaps less has changed in the decades since the unknown woman posed in her ornate chair than contemporary Mumbaikars would like to believe.

The Dr. Bhau Daji Lad museum was particularly well suited for such an investigation of a nascent urban subjectivity. The museum has become the standard-bearer for a particular version of the city: the old Bombay, for which the new Mumbai (with its skyscrapers and endless construction projects) has little time. As relics of the raj fall into disrepair, the fact that this establishment—once known as the Victoria and Albert Museum—has been painstakingly renovated under Mehta’s guidance is an achievement in itself. “The Artful Pose” was the museum’s first major show since it reopened its doors in January 2008. Serving as a prologue to a program of contemporary exhibitions, the show was a fitting exploration of the debt the present owes the past.

Zehra Jumabhoy is a Mumbai-based critic and assistant editor of Art India Magazine.