January 15, 2010

Albert Kahn's India Photo Journeys at NGMA, Mumbai

While I’m familiar with Raghu Rai’s iconic takes of Indian streets post-Independence, I was curious of Albert Kahn’s attempt at the same in 1913. Apparently Kahn’s greatest wish was to “Capture life, in the street, everywhere.”

The year is the operative word. What did India of the street look like at the turn of the last century? How empty were the streets then? And what innocence of an ancient culture might I find in the eyes that posed for the photographers that Albert Kahn commissioned on their India Journeys as part of his project – The Archives of the Planet, even though it was only the twentieth century India the project covered while its glories as a civilisation lay in the centuries before.

On stepping into the gallery I was surprised to face up to a large, lighted image of a devotee clad in bright saffron, bare-chested save for the strip of cloth across his chest and down his back. The contrast with the arched pillars in the passageway of the Hathi Singh Jain temple in Ahmedabad was striking as much for the architecture in marble as for the expression on the devotee’s face, standing as if in obeisance to the photographer, Georges Chevalier, as he made the picture in the winter of 1913.

I did not expect to see colour images, surely not those documenting India in 1913. Apparently, the Lumiere Brothers patented Autochrome Lumiere in 1903 before marketing their colour photography process in 1907, and two years later in 1909 Albert Kahn set out to build his Archives of the Planet, driven by his vision to create a living memory of Humanity in colour and movement.

The exhibition currently underway in Bombay at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is a throwback to the India of the early 20th century, in colour.

The entire collection of Autochrome color plates shot in India in two phases (1913-14 and 1927-28) by the photographers working on Kahn’s project is not represented in the exhibits; only a small representation of the 1,200 Autochromes known to have been shot in India is on display. Even then it is mesmerizing considering the times in which it was conceived and implemented.

Albert Kahn, a French banker and philanthropist of Jewish origin, committed his fortune to the realization of this project in an attempt to “promote peace and greater understanding of the world’s cultures”, hiring photographers to travel to over 50 countries and document their people and cultures.

The project started in 1909 and ended in 1931 when Albert Kahn went bankrupt in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He died in France in 1940 when under Nazi occupation during World War II.

The project yielded 72,000 colour pictures in addition to over 100 hours of film.

Albert Kahn commissioned high-end Louis Vuitton trunks for his cameramen to use on their assignments across the planet. A select few Indian Royals commissioned Louis Vuitton for “Art of Travel” trunks, notably the Maharajah of Holkar, the Prince and Princess of Pudokota, the Maharajah Bahadur of Jammu and Kashmir, and Jagatjit Singh, the Maharajah of Kapurtala.

Some the trunks the Royals commissioned are on display as exhibits. I found the attention to detail fascinating. If it were not for the upper flap I might’ve mistaken it for a cupboard.

The exhibits are spread across three floors. The ground floor exhibits are centered around a Louis Vuitton trunk that each of Kahn’s photographers used on their travels. Placed in the centre the red trunk is the key attraction along with portraits of a fierce looking Maulana Muhammad Ali, Head of Indian Khilafat Delegation, 1920, Sayaji Rao III, Maharajah of Baroda, Jagatjit Singh, Maharajah of Kapurtala, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, 1920, among others.

The picture of Rabindranath Tagore’s adopted grand daughter, Nandini Tagore, by Georges Chevalier in 1928 is particularly moving for the sheer colour and her expression. Albert Kahn held the Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, in high esteem.

The India portion of his project was completed in two phases, first by Stephane Passet in the years 1913-14 and was followed by Roger Dumas towards the end of 1927 and the beginning of 1928 on invitation by Maharajah Jagatjit Singh of Kapurtala for his golden jubilee celebrations in Nov-Dec 1927. Later, Roger Dumas stayed on in India until February 1928, touring with the Maharajah through several Princely States in north-western India.

Stephane Passet’s exhibits on the horse shoe shaped first floor gallery is titled Echoes & Dialogues of India and primarily cover the Bombay of 1913, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Amritsar, Agra, and Jaipur. The pictures are mostly images of religious places with a few stills from the streets.

“Aha, the Hawa Mahal was so uncrowded then. Now the street is crowded with roadside shops,” whispered A. She was equally taken in by Agra pictures depicting two women who had just collected water, and clay homes with thatched roofs, their inhabitants posing in front; faces that survived the century even if their identities did not.

Mumbai pictures were restricted to deities and temples. While we stopped by each image lighting up its space, black and white documentaries from the same period played on the screen. The photographers brought back over two hours of documentary footage they shot on their India travels.

The second floor is devoted to Roger Dumas’ colour pictures from his 1927-28 India travels. Titled Princely Invitations, Maharajah of Kapurtala, the exhibits cover Kapurtala during Maharajah Jagatjit Singh’s golden jubilee celebrations. Kapurtala is noted as A piece of France at the foot of the Himalayas.

Information on the exhibits notes that Jagatjit Singh was also the representative of the Indian Princes to the League of Nations. In June 1919, he signed the treaty of Versailles on their behalf which ended the Second World War.

South, West, and East India are not represented in the exhibits.

While much of India and its diversity is conspicuous by its absence in the exhibits, the collection is however remarkable for attempting to document aspects of India which would otherwise be lost to time. For this alone the exhibition is a must-see, a legacy Albert Kahn bequeathed to the world.

It is a tribute to one man’s vision attempting to make a difference to his world.

Note: After exhibiting at the NGMA, Delhi, 29 Nov – 27 Dec, 2009, the exhibition traveled to Mumbai and is currently on at the NGMA, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. It is open until 30 Jan, 2010. The gallery is closed on Mondays.

Related Links

1. The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn

2. The Edwardians in Colour


Steve said...

Your commentary is excellent. It would be an exciting visit to attend and see some of the photographs.

Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Congratulations on such a wonderful insight into Kahn's work.

Happy New Year.

Sarah Laurence said...

It looks like an interesting exhibit in a cool space. That’s quite a camera bag! Thanks for the tour.

bobbie said...

How I would enjoy such an exhibit!

And by the way, I too hold Rabindranath Tagore in high esteem. His poetry and wisdom - so very beautiful.

Anuradha Shankar said...

Thanks for the visual tour... I really must go and see this one.... hope i will be able to...

you know, the last time i visited NGMA was for the Picasso exhibition.. years back!!!

Riot Kitty said...

I wish I could go see that. It is always a delightful surprise to see old photos in color, too.

radha said...

Nice tour. It really feels good to see old pictures - some that we can associate with and some even far back in time.

Amber Star said...

Your composition is of the display is beautiful. The camera bag was really something and was surely a startling color in that time frame.

You have been very busy and thank you for sharing your news.

Mumbai Paused said...


Trip back in time!

Anil P said...

Steve: Thank you. The setting is excellent, and so are the photo mounts. The glass plates bring the pictures to life with backbround lighting.

Tales from the Birch Wood: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Wish you a happy new year too.

Sarah Laurence: Yes, it is very interesting. Moreover there're not as many pictures around elsewhere documenting India from that era. So there's a curiosity element.

Some of the portraits on display relate to famous figures from Indian history, so viewers can relate to the exhibits.

Bobbie: It's a wonderful exhibition space and the exhibits have been spaced out well. His poetry and writings are very beautiful.

Anu: You're welcome, thank you. It's a must-see. I remember the exhibition you mention. I happened to see the Picasso exhibition as well.

Riot Kitty: Yes, rightly said. It's indeed delightful to see pictures from before. There's that element of mystique to them.

Radha: Thank you. It is the associations we bring to bear upon our experience at the exhibition that adds emotion to the tour.

Amber Star: Thank you. The camera bag is a highlight. The rope handles. It is very sturdy.

Mumbai Paused: Yes, a trip back in time.

Anjuli said...

Oh I would so love to see this exhibit. You've described it excellently ... all the more I wished I could have been looking at the pictures you were talking about.

Anjuli said...

you have now hooked me on these Albert Kahn photographs- and the history behind them- I want to buy the book so I can have all those pictures to look over slowly- studying each and every one.

Anil P said...

Anjuli: Thank you. It's an important collection documenting life in those times.

Since this is a travelling exhibit there's a chance you might get to see it sometime.

Moreover much of the collection has a permanent residence in Rue du Port, Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris.

Buying the book might be a good idea too.

kestrel said...

I find the photo of the Louis Vuitton trunk unusual and at the same time interesting. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate so many good photos in an exihibition so thank you for showing us your selected collection

Coffee Messiah said...

An interesting post and exhibit.

And there's something to be said for any photographs still around on glass.

Cheers! CM

Anil P said...

Kestrel: Thank you. The trunks are very sturdy. Photography then involved heavy equipment, were bulky to carry around.

Coffee Messia: Glass prints lit up make for striking viewing.

What About The Girl? said...

I would love to have seen those ancient cameras! These trunks are priceless. And how huge are these trunks that you mistook them for cupboards!?
I would like to pull a mission impossible act in the museum. But out of great respect to art and arists and visionaries, and great writers like you, I shan't. ;-)

Anil P said...

TGF Cherry Blossom Street: I would've liked to see the cameras as well.

The trunk in the picture was used by the photographers and are not so big, but another exhibit showing a trunk belonging to an Indian prince was more like a cupboard, with a chest of drawers to boot.

Aha, mission impossible :-)