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Through the Colonial Lens

Malavika Karlekar

By Kurt Meyer and Pamela Deuel Meyer
Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, 2005, pp. 190, Rs. 2500.00


In several entertaining and insightful com- mentaries on the British Raj, Jan Morris likened much of its work to that of a development agency: building roads and railways, introducing the telegraph and later telephone as well as modern western medical practices and educational methods. Interestingly, though The Spectacle of Empire (London: Faber and Faber, 1982) is in some senses a photographic document of the various activities of the Raj, Morris does not really discuss in any great detail the role of the camera in governance.  After the 1840s, while family photographs provided for a flourishing business, the ‘selling’ of India to the British population at home depended quite a bit on its visual marketability.   Visualization was also important in governance – in recording and in surveillance. In 1844, five years after Louis Daguerre had patented the daguerreotype, the East India Company informed its offices in Bengal that as absolute accuracy was essential for drawings and representations, the authorities were sending three of Dolland’s camera lucida to India.  From 1855, cadets at the Military Seminary in Addiscombe were instructed in photography and cameras were despatched to army units in the colony. In the same year, a photographic record of the construction of military barracks was maintained and in the following year, the camera was used to identify possible routes for railway lines.   It is hardly surprising then that some of the best-known photographers of the day were military men, several of them trained in methods of surveying. Engineers too were advised to keep a photographic record of public works projects . Often, however, the work of these many men and a few women who made photography a hobby, remained unknown. John Claude White was once such man whose amazing portfolio the Meyers have brought into the public domain. He was an “engineer by education, a political officer by administrative appointment and a photographer by calling” (p. 23).  And a political officer in the highly sensitive areas of Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal, areas where Francis Younghusband achieved a certain notoriety. One of the most celebrated and controversial heroes of British expansion in the north, Younghusband had singlehandedly masterminded the invasion of Tibet in 1904. White was little known, another cog in the expanding wheel of empire – though he was assigned to Younghusband as his deputy commissioner in the vital annexation of Tibet. White lived among the mountain peoples for over two decades and details of his life ...

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