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To Look Back And Remember


Tapati Guha-Thakurta

RE-VISIONING THE PAST: EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY IN BENGAL, 1875-1915
By Malavika Karlekar
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp.197, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 9 September 2005

This is a book which has essentially grown out of an archival venture of searching out and assembling a collection of family photographs of the late 19th and early 20th century from some of Bengal’s most eminent households. That this Bengali elite—this exclusive circuit of Brahmo, ICS, western-educated, reformist and nationalist families—was one of the most intensely photographed social group in colonial India makes this a particularly rich and productive archive. And Malavika Karlekar’s own kinship ties with this network of families has allowed her to delve deep into their personal histories, into their store of memories and recollections, also into the parallel histories of photographic studios and practices in Bengal, to draw out the different social contexts in which these individual, group and family portraits were taken. The greatest value of this book, I would say, lies in its presentation of this fascinating corpus of family photographs, and in the author’s sensitive ‘reading’ of these images as ‘sources’ that yield a new sense of patterns of domesticity, conjugality, and the public and familial life of the Bengali bhadralok. There are, however, a set of larger claims that rest less easily within the structure of the work. It is made clear, at the outset, that this is less of a history of photography in Bengal, and more of an attempt at reconstructing history through photography—with the conviction that the visual object constitutes not just an illustration or corroboration of an already-known history but that it adds a wholly different dimension to that history and reconfigures it in multiple ways. Karlekar’s main charge, then, is to find ways of ‘reading’ these collections of photographs, and of extracting from them their many contexts and stories. The introductory and concluding chapters of the book discuss at some length the various modes of ‘reading’ photographs—as an infallible record of past reality, as a mnemonic device that triggers off a train of remembrance and recollection, as a technological artifice that frames, constructs and fashions the image, and as a space of social fiction and fantasy. The author makes a valiant effort, here, at engaging with the formulations of all the main cultural theorists on photography, from Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes to Victor Burgin, Sussan Sontag or Pierre Bourdieu. She also succeeds in laying out a succinct, synoptic history of the early practices of photography in Europe. ...


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