Golam Kasem Daddy, Happy girl. Dacca, 1957, ink-jet print, 10 × 7".

Golam Kasem Daddy, Happy girl. Dacca, 1957, ink-jet print, 10 × 7".

Golam Kasem Daddy

Drik Gallery

A young girl, spider lilies tucked into her hair, smiles as she chews on a stalk of wheat. Behind her, a crinkled cloth sheet hangs in the sun. Titled simply Happy girl. Dacca, 1957, the photograph is one of the thirty-two black-and-white giclée prints in “When the Mind Says Yes,” a solo exhibition of Golam Kasem (1894–1998), who is widely considered the father of modern photography in Bangladesh and is better known as “Daddy.” In this image, his young subject wears hoop earrings and a pearl necklace. Her nails are painted, and stacked bangles encircle her wrist. Settled into her pose with mischievous grace, she is unfazed by the camera. Daddy was an early proprietor of the traveling photo studio: The sheet hanging behind the subject works as a backdrop, spilling soft and diffuse light across the frame. And though Daddy photographed buildings and streetscapes, his focus was on portraits, many of which he shot outdoors. In Two sisters and a brother. Howrah, West Bengal, 1923, the girls sit barefoot at the center of the frame, their brother nestled between their legs. Their chins are slightly upturned, defiant.

There is an air of fiction to the photographs: They build narratives, and their subjects hold themselves with great determination and poise. This artifice is what differentiates Daddy from his contemporaries. The introduction of photography to South Asia was a colonial exercise, with the earliest photographers surveying the extent of the then-British colonies with an expansionist ethnographic eye. Naturally, those images are problematic, often generating invidious stereotypes of place and people. Daddy opens a door onto another history.

Daddy was a keen archivist: He preserved his glass plates, the earliest—Girl in chair. Howrah, West Bengal—dating to 1918. In that image, we are met with peering, curious eyes that do not shy away from the lens. The protagonist sits on a handwoven chair in an overgrown garden, weeds tumbling around her. The scene is slightly tilted, as though caught in a quick flash, the feeling mirrored by a patch of overexposed light that shines brightly above her head. A pair of vitrines at the center of the gallery showed some of the glass plates alongside a selection of letters and other documents, including a 1990 essay titled “A Short Sketch of My Photographic Life.” In this telling piece, Daddy explains how he began photographing with a quarter-size box camera and soon moved to folding film cameras, twin-lens cameras, and finally the 35-mm single-lens reflexes.

Daddy’s photographs have the same deeply contrasted yet slightly hazy light and color as the films of Satyajit Ray and possess a similar hint of glamour. The photographer used vignetting and overexposure to poetic effect. In Her first dance. Midnapore, West Bengal, 1926, a child in a printed dress with a bow at the neck stands at the center of a group of people. Seated around her on the floor, they gaze up at her adoringly. Owing to the overexposure of the plate, the scene behind her takes on a dreamlike atmosphere, as it opens onto a canopy of trees bobbing over her head. These photographs reinvent the pictorialist aesthetic: They capture the hot sun dappling the ground between overhanging leaves and darkened by a nearly black backdrop. In Tempting fish. Dacca, 1960, five children poke at two large fish wrapped in paper. The photograph is intensely cinematic, flush with the intimacy of this spirited gang, animated by their childish grasp of the unknown catch. Daddy had a special, affectionate touch and was able to turn small moments into grand declarations of family and friendship.