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Fascinating Images

Sabeena Gadihoke

Edited by Vivan Sundaram and Devika Daulet-Singh
Photoink, 2008, pp. 254, Rs. 2750.00


A few years ago artist Vivan Sundaram created a stunning body of work titled Retake of Amrita using fifty-six exquisite images of the family taken by his grandfather Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870–1954). Using his ‘digital wand’ and drawing upon the mythology about the short but brilliant life of the iconic painter daughter of Umrao Singh, Amrita, he created amazing multiple narratives through a digital layering of photographs in the collection. Clearly there were several artists in that work, the photographs of the grandfather, the painter Amrita and the multilayered insights created by Vivan’s re-working of the photographs. However what stood out even then was the amazing inspiration for this work, a collection of personal photographs that spoke of an intensity quite unparalleled in Indian photography at the turn of the twentieth century. The highly self-conscious nature of these private photographs marks them as uniquely distinct from earlier more public and official histories of the medium. Along with early professional photographers were keen amateurs, some of whom used the camera to turn their gaze inwards. More consensual and collaborative in nature, their images spoke of other histories, often of private moments and preoccupations that placed the individual rather than the ‘type’, ‘community’ or ‘nation’ at the centre of the photographic subject. Auto ethnography was the neglected ‘other’ of classical ethnography, a tradition not counted as ethnography because it did not have the supposed distance between subject and surveyor. It is not surprising that these more quiet histories of photography did not get written up formally. Seven years later, Sunderam pays a tribute to the original source material created by his grandfather. The book under review is in that sense a worthy prequel to his evocative art work and a welcome addition to the early history of photography in India.   A keen amateur photographer who photographed his own family, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s images also testify to his multiple interests. He was a man of letters, a scholar of Persian and Sanskrit, with an interest in the philosophy of religion. A landed aristocrat of Majithia in Punjab, Umrao Singh was forced to distance himself from the gathering momentum of nationalist politics when the colonial state confiscated his property for his links with the revolutionary Ghaddar party. This twist of fate was to change his life forever as it was to force him into a more internal exile with his books, papers and ...

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