On Art, Art Criticism & Art History

Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)

Street art on a London street (Photo: Praveena Sridhar)

How often are we conscious of using words like art, craft, art criticism, art history, artisan and artist ? These words are used interchangeably in common language or at times in conjunction, like ‘art and craft’. How does one distinguish one from the other? Is there a difference? These are simpler questions emerging from a common user perspective. The other set of questions which make take the inquiry deeper are – has the meaning of the word ‘art’ changed over centuries? If yes, what does one read in this change? How does this effect our experience and understanding of art? Together these questions embody a range of philosophical aspects of art and its experience.

Art criticism as well as art history can be attempted only when an approximate meaning (if not sharp) of ‘art’ is set. This has been my concern lately. An appealing take on arts is seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without A Country . He writes,

“If you want to really hurt you parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

This is the stuff many would identify with – ‘a very human way’ , easy, simple and experiential. And don’t people really indulge in arts as a reprieve? But this offers no direction to those seeking a scholarly engagement with arts. This is not a material that can be worked with in a scholarly sense, yet it is of great value as a literary work.

An analyical perspective on arts is offered by R. G. Collingwood in The Principles of Art published in 1938. He notes that ‘there is no point in using words according to a private rule of our own, we must use them in a way which fits on to common usage. This again would have been easy, but for the fact that common usage is ambiguous.’ And when common usage is ambiguous then ‘confusion between the various senses of the word may produce bad practice as well as bad theory’. Hence, the effort to understand what art is before one goes further into history and criticism. A useful sketch on the history of the word ‘art’ comes from Collingwood,

The aesthetic sense of the word, the sense which here concerns us, is very recent in origin. Ars in ancient Latin means something quite different. It means a craft or specialized form of skill, like carpentry or smithying or surgery. The Greeks and Romans had no conception of what we call art as something different from craft; what we call art they regarded merely as a group of crafts, such as the craft of poetry (ars poetica) which they conceived, sometimes no doubt with misgivings, as in principle just like carpentry and the rest, and differing from any one of these only in the sort of way in which any one of them differs from any other. It is difficult for us to realize this fact, and still more so to realize its implications. If people have no word for a certain kind of thing, it is because they are not aware of it as a distinct kind.

Artists of the Renaissance period conform to this notion of arts and the artists think of themselves as craftsmen. However, a shift in meaning begins in the seventeenth century.

It was not until the seventeenth century that the problems and conceptions of aesthetic began to be disentangled from those of technic or the philosophy of craft. In the late eighteenth century the disentanglement had gone so far as to establish a distinction between the fine arts and the useful arts; where ‘fine’ arts meant, not delicate or highly skilled arts, but ‘beautiful’ arts (les beaux arts, le belle arti, die schone Kunst). In the nineteenth century this phrase, abbreviated by leaving out the epithet and generalized by substituting the singular for the distributive plural, became ‘art’.

– (Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

This discussion emerges from a set of questions that my friend shared adding that how does one approach these issues during an exploration of art forms. The questions suggest an interest which goes beyond the typical museum visitor or from a person interested in an aesthetic consumption alone. His questions –

  1. Interpretation of art, especially sculptures, wall reliefs and statues. 
  2. The philosophy and meaning behind a piece of art. History of the piece of art, particularly religious pieces,  starting from how it was first designed through how it evolved, depending upon economics, politics, cultural assimilation, communal strife, to its present form and importance.
  3.  The place of wall reliefs in architecture (temples mostly).
  4.  Symbolism
  5. The question of ‘why’? Why would artisans/artistes want to create such stuff, what motivated them to?
  6. Geographical variation of art, perhaps due to climate or raw materials
  7. Historical evolution of art itself, especially in South India, especially sculptures.

These questions include a wide range of philosophical ideas – aesthetics, form, experience, imagination, consciousness, language etc. Each one of these are pursuits in themselves. Nevertheless, one can still attempt a methodical approach to appreciating art forms (this is a dangerous terrain to chart as one may argue that it is oversimplification of the subject and that it is naive at best). I would like to argue that a step wise, methodical approach which includes a checklist of questions to pose when one observes a piece of work is a fairly decent segueing into the discipline. More importantly, it makes the subject interesting! For beginners as well as the younger generation which doesn’t seem to have time for the museums but seem to enjoy themselves in public art installations, street graffiti and similar spaces of art practice and performance.

So, to my friend who posed those questions I suggest this method of analysis based on Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Art and from Kaoime Malloy’s lectures. I have uploaded a pdf document on the method here – Art Criticism and Analysis: An Approach. Malloy divides analysis into 4 steps – Description, Analysis, Interpretation and Judgement. Under each one of these there are a set of questions which help to identify and unearth information about the study form in a structured manner. For instance, it poses these basic questions to describe the art form

  • Form of art whether architecture, sculpture, painting or one of the minor art
  • Medium of work whether clay, stone, steel, paint, etc., and technique (tools used)
  • Size and scale of work (relationship to person and/or frame and/or context)
  • Elements or general shapes (architectural structural system) within the composition, including building of post-lintel construction or painting with several figures lined up in a row; identification of objects.

While I acknowledge that this method oriented experience of arts is too clinical and perhaps doesn’t remain an experience anymore I would argue that it delivers on greater insights into the context, form and style of the art work. This is a potential material which can then be worked with.

Of course, one might in the end still allege that this is no where near to Vonnegut’s elegant prose that we began with.


Age, Travel, Life & some Steinbeck

Road, Vembar

The road leading a fishing village on the Coromandel coast, South India

One of the finest pieces I have read lately is this opening by Steinbeck in Travels With Charley. This set me reflecting on affairs in my own life and it coincidentally comes at the time of the year- that date which marks one’s age when I do take a one-eye-pressed look this question of ‘one’s course in life’. I now have a literary parallel and a much refined one at that for the stuff I have felt often. Not that I love thinking about it but as that guy in Finding Forrester says, it is like praying – how does it hurt? Here are the lines which add to my high this day –

When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself.

When the virus of restlessness begins to take possession of a wayward man, and the road away from here seems broad and straight and sweet, the victim must first find in himself a good and sufficient reason for going. This to the practical bum is not difficult. He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey. How to go, what to take, how long to stay. This part of the process is invariable and immortal. I set it down only so that newcomers to bumdom, like teen-agers in new-hatched sin, will not think they invented it.

Clearly, this is one of the finest I have read from Steinbeck. Reading this I am also beginning to think of literary analysis as an area of enquiry in sociology. One could also approach it from literature but somehow sociology seems to be a better vantage point to look at literary works. What does work of this variety suggest?

Travels With Charley for me is a reading in human condition – the confusions of a young man. Amazingly, these confusions have remained the same even after fifty years of this work. Fifty years is a good time for nations, politics and society to undergo transformations in a manner that the earlier ideas and practices no longer stand relevant. Take Iran for instance where Grandma’s and Moms had greater social freedoms than the daughters now.

I am taking it as social reader of the world of 1960s. Remarkably, young men still go through the same urge to travel, be ‘someplace else’. And taking the road was a recourse as much as it is now for a ‘wayward man’. Nothing quite appears to have changed in this regard. And I say this as a part time roadie myself. There is this ability in the road to re-calibrate for him- the wayward man, the social order that he seeks to escape. The experiences on the road allows him to engage with this social reality on his own terms and in his own way. He is free to ride into desolate, distant and empty lands if he chooses not to engage with the world for a while or for longer (people ride to Rann of Kutch in Gujarat all the time) and he could as well ride to bustling, packed and hyper energetic towns and cities (Kochi, Dharamsala, Pondicherry)when he feels like having a slice of people and the lives they live. The terms are his own as he is the rider!

Having a good friend who is a roadie as well, I must add that the person in Steinbeck’s piece could as well be a woman. Word for word the piece applies as much to a woman as to man. So no gender bias as I see in this. It can be read either way. Point is gender would not be appropriate to bring in. Roadies are perhaps another sex!

So there… take the road!

On how not to do a study

It would be interesting to see the sort of writing that would come out if ‘researchers’ of Marxist influence were to leave their desks, go out into the real world (in quotes for I doubt if they should be called so) and do a study with actual field observations. I am making no criticism on why Marxist ideas are being pursued in the current times and of course it would be naive to do so. The problem is with the way it is being pursued. The ‘lens’ syndrome is all too rampant where a researcher conducting a sociological, environmental, political or philosophical study is quick to summon these thinkers and their ideas and gift wrap their studies in it.

An example is this one on Community-Coco-Cola Interface: Political- Anthropological concerns on Corporate Social Responsibility. I find that the study has been too quick to summon grand ideas without sufficiently examining how do these relate to the subject at hand. Also that it starts with a position that the corporate in question has had damaging effects on the community. While this position is okay to take, it obfuscates a fair judgement as it does not examine the positive effects (sure there would be some for millions of dollars spent on it by the company worldwide) that CSR had on the community.

The presentation below is a short analysis of this study’s key ideas and conclusion prepared during a lecture on research methods.

A methodological note on field work & research

A woman draws water from a beri (a traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan

A woman draws water from a beri (traditional well), Barmer district, Rajasthan. Image: Praveena Sridhar

On conducting research in development sector and doing field work it appears that there are divergent views on how a question of interest (enquiry) should be pursued. These academic concerns – epistemological and ontological, were clearly unknown to us in our comapny where we have done contract research for small businesses, funding agencies and NGOs. We had a question, we had an agreed structure of enquiry and then we proceeded to the field to find out whats going on and we sought observations guided by our pre-decided structure. At one level it appeared intuitive to us. Of course, it requires domain knowledge and prior experience in that field of research but then that is all. We did have it. Also that we have persistently worked on it over the years.

The findings we came out with and the reports we developed during these research assignments always seemed to find acceptance with the client and was done to the client’s satisfaction. A testimony of this fact is that our company has grown solely on word of mouth and our image as well meaning, ethical researchers with a good value for money proposition. In our humble opinion we are just another cog in the wheel who try to do their job and learn from every single one of them.

This idea of ‘applied’ work (that we thought we were doing fairly well) complicated as one of us (I) entered academics. I am attending a course on research methods to take the quality of our work in our business to the next level. This next level we see as a widening of scope, depth and offer greater value to the clients in terms of insights and actionable knowledge.

In conducting academic research projects the knowledge framework, methods and final use perspective of the research are divergent from how one may conduct research in business. I am not entirely sure if the divergence that I am noticing here is universal or it is merely coincidental that we in our company have operated differently! Here is an instance –

In March 2012, we documented a small NGO’s work on using traditional methods of harvesting water in desert regions of Rajasthan, India. This NGO felt that it had a rather unique approach where it was not organizing the water scarcity affected community by using any external or ‘western’ approach of implementing projects but work with the community to mobilize them, drawing on their own, inherent societal values. There are no ‘timelines’ and no ‘plans’ in such mode of operation. In some ways this was a very fuzzy and unclear mode of working for an observer outside of the cultural and social realm of the people living in these deserts regions of Rajasthan.  The organization now wanted this work documented because they had been successful in helping the people of the villages in this region to address their own water security by reviving the traditional water harvesting structures that have existed in the region for centuries. They felt this approach should be shared with a wider network of organizations and that they too could draw some learning from this experience.

We toured the region for over three weeks and actively observed the deliberative process and village meetings that happened between people. The staff at the NGO also constituted our subject of enquiry as their motivations mattered to the outcome of this NGO’s endeavour.  The report was prepared and the NGO as well as its funding partner find it articulate and insightful, for now they had an identified process in place which could be shared with organizations. In short, they felt it was a practical guide to working in revival of traditional water harvesting systems.

When I presented the same study (in greater detail) to a group of academic researchers, I was questioned on the ‘knowledge constructs’ and ‘implicit assumption’ that our approach carried. No objection that we would like to raise to such questions of theoretical merit but we would like to ask ‘whats the point?’ . Too many good quality studies which actually help organizations benefit from clearly identifiable method to accomplish a change or implement a project are criticized on their epistemological considerations. While for a larger pursuit such questions may be of value and many a times they are (like they say ‘some research questions should have never been asked’ as in case of scoring human intelligence (IQ)). But in development sector it would perhaps be equally important not to score a research study only and primarily on theoretical basis. Examples of such theoretical, hard to identify what is being said and what was the point kind of research abound in academics.

Bottom line: There is a dire need of applied and practical variety of research as well, which serves the interested of NGOs who seek understanding and implementation knowledge of development issues and workable solutions to them.

Engaging Modern Indian Political Thought – A discussion

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

‘The problem with Indian scholarship is that it lacks a robust, critical biographical tradition’ – This remark was made by historian Ramachandra Guha who spoke at the university this week on modern Indian political thought. It is striking because I have often felt the absence of scholarship on several forgotten heroes of Indian independence as well as in other spheres of life like armed forces and military in particular (which is a subject close to me). For instance, one of the few biographies on Indian Army Generals and perhaps the only one on General Thimayya was written by an English journalist Evans Humphrey. Lack of comprehensive works on several such noted Indians is of concern in Social Sciences. Also, to me it appears that a reason for Guha’s success as a writer is because his books are a result of extensive research that brings out several different aspects and narratives of the period in which his books are set. His book India After Gandhi alone has a dense and rich list of references and personalities whose lives could be taken up as exclusive subjects.

In a discussion this week, Sudhir poses questions to Guha which are set around 3 key themes – education, constitution and caste. The other context of this discussion is his book Makers of Modern India. We have been reading several chapters from this book to gain a better understanding of social interventions and political context in which people like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jyotirao Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar operated.

On Education – Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education is widely known as a backdrop to modern Indian education. But it is striking to read Raja Ram Mohun Roy (RRMR) making a similar argument many years before Macaulay. That if the government wants Indians to hold themselves in the modern world should the government be advocating teaching of Sanskrit? Or a language that the modern world understands?

Guha notes RRMR was not disparaging sanskrit but that the state should not be promoting learning of Sanskrit and Persian. He would be on RRMR’s side and that this reasoning is. In a similar vein years later under a more established British India, Jyotirao Phule castigates government spending on higher education as opposed to primary. His letter to the government reflects a thinking on what modern education should look like. As an author Guha explains that there is a logic to the sequence of chapters on RRMR, Syed Ahmed Khan and Jyotirao Phule. While there is some backward looking nostalgia of the Mughal decline in RRMR’s views, Syed Ahmed Khan is forward looking. Jyotirao is an extraordinary character whose ideas are a precursor of Ambedkar when he states that education must be available to all and that the system of modern education under the British is dominated by Brahmins. This progression of thought over time and in the views of the these three visionaries is quite interesting. It has vital sociological, political and historical insights to offer.

On Constitution of India – Referring to  Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly at the presentation of constitution one notes that he is at pains to state that the Constitution is not a very novel document. He asks what new can be said? Guha’s motivation to select this excerpt for his book Makers of Modern India suggests a peculiar motivation. Did Ambedkar genuinely believe that? As a question of intellectual histroy what they ended up doing with the Constitution is terribly novel suggest Sudhir. The very idea of novelty is not only played down by Ambedkar but also by Nehru who speaks after him. Why was disclaiming novelty such an important idea?

Guha notes that Ambedkar is a scholar. He wants to recognize what has come before him. Social sciences builds upon what has been done before. Ambedkar is also a modernist. But Guha then admits that he doesn’t know why are they (Ambedkar and Nehru) being so strategic in stating that the Constitution is not a novel document. Could this be then regarded as a task of great intellectual modesty by the makers of Constitution of India?

A more remarkable reading into this constitutional debate is the idea that the Constitution can achieve social revolution. In political thought there is no idea that a Constitution can do the job of a social revolution. Perhaps this is the punch of Constitution that it is a fine example of political thinking. The second excerpt in Guha’s book Makers of Modern India is about Constitutional method of advancing politics. This is in many ways absent in the current times. Guha suggest that there are 3 warnings in that speech in this excerpted concluding speech by Ambedkar –

  1.  Constitution is one man one vote. It is a call for social and economic equality.
  2.  On satyagraha as a means. Guha adds, “Let us be clear about one thing, that Ambedkar must have absolutely detersted the Maoists.” Violent revolutionary means of protesting when we were governed by a colonial power was ok. “But now to use it is grammar of anarchy.
  3. This is the “most striking and relevant warning. I remember it everyweek – of dangers of hero worship. Bhakti in religion can get you personal salvation. But bhakti in politics is a road to dictatorship. Whenever I see Narendra Modi speak on TV I think of Ambedkar” adds a clear and assertive Guha. “However great a person’s contrubution to his country be, you cannot lay down your liberties at his feet. Narendra Modi’s authoritarianism is complete. I am terrified at the thought of him becoming the PM.

On caste –  Caste is fundamental to our social life, to politics and to our law. Makers of Modern India does not take any position. The only position is that if one wants to understand the modern Indian social political order then forget Ashoka. That is not where one should begin to understand modern Indian political thought. The extraordinary intellectual ferment in the 19th century has been critical and it is a continuous tradition . The personalities included in Makers of Modern India are thinker-politicians. Thats a core interest. I have just tried to show the diversity adds Guha. Caste is constitutive of the Indian experience and of Indian democracy.

Following this Guha was on  a rapid fire mode on several questions that were posed to him. It is always a delight to see a clear minded and honest individual batting straight off than glossing over or sugar coating opinion.

  1. On ‘Amdedkarite fundamentalism’ – We need to be somewhat empathetic to this kind that in a sense they are paradoxical- the two words. Ambedkar was a reflexive thinker. If it is about being more empathetic to admiration of Ambedkar then one needs to be honest. Tribals have suffered more than dalits. A reason is that tribals have never had a rallying figure like Ambedkar. The duty of a scholar is to be honest. For instance, Arun Shourie wrote a shameful book on Ambedkar. He said 2 things – Amdekar was a tony of British. Ambedkar said abusive things about Gandhi. This was wrong. Superficially this could be true. If one quotes Ambedkar on Gandhi then quote Gandhi on Ambedkar as well. Shourie deliberately suppressed that part. It is a dishonest book.
  2. On ‘deification’ in Indian politics – It is quite a dark side and emerged with Indira Gandhi. Congress party was the first which abandoned the cadres. Marxists are the only exception. They deified Marx and Engels but have been austere in their personal lives like Manik Sarkar and Jyoti Basu. Only a cadre based party can avoid this. 
  3. On Swami Vivekanda – I knew criticisms would be made. I say on reflection I may have included him. The other person is Vishveshwaraya that I should have included. He was an original thinker in technology. Bose, Patel and EMS Namboodiripad do not find a place in this book . They were not original thinkers.
  4. On Ashish Nandy controvery at JLF – What Nandy said is indefensible and factually wrong. He could have just said, “Mere sey galti ho gayi hai” . What is wrong in saying that “what I said is factually wrong.” Of course he shouldn’t have gone to jail.
  5. On Gender – India has more powerful female political leaders than any other country. Yet the state of women is appalling. A part of the problem is that two major religions in India are profoundly irreducible to patriarchy – Hinduism and Islam. It is deeply encoded.

Stuff like this makes my time at the University worth. Otherwise, I have often felt I am better taking the road and get out, engage with the world in its real colours and not just the black typed text! 

Seeing the old through new lenses – Digital Humanities

A few weeks back I attended a talk on Digital Humanities organized by Center for Public History at Srishti . I figured that what appeared new was something which we (my startup partner & I) were already doing without quite knowing that a new set of technology tools applied to sociology is now going by a new name called ‘digital humanities’. It applies a range of computing and digital technologies to humanities discipline making research in this area deliver on aspects which were earlier not possible. Some rather peculiar and interesting ways of looking at text and images have emerged as a consequence – Google’s n-gram viewer for instance and wordle tool. While  I think these computational tools are exciting to use and valuable in exploring and mining material, these do not make for very sound techniques which can be at par with the conventional research methods.

Here is a small wordle based analysis to explore what is the kind of shift in focus, value, thinking and prominence of literary ideas that happen in over a century. [Wordle generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.] For this I use Nobel Prize in Literature citations from year 1900 to 2010, a period little more than a century. I split this duration into two periods of 1900-1950 and 1951-2010. The split at 1950 is to contrast between pre and post World War II world. And in what manner does such a large scale (almost the entire world gets involved) and extremely bloody event in the history brings about a change in the values and literary themes pre and post war. Like the way Walt Whitman’s work gets shaped by his experiences as a field nurse during the American Civil War, I try to explore how global ideas shape after WW II. Here, I assume Nobel Prize in Literature as a representative of global values of the time. 

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1900-1950 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1900-1950

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature from 1950-2010 –

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

Word cloud of Nobel Prize in Literature citations from 1951-2010

The two word clouds were a fascinating picture. Notice how a major word “recognition” before WW II changes to “narrative” after the war. In fact, the word “recognition” almost disappears along with “idealism”. And well, I am tempted to look at “idealism” ‘s disappearance after WW II and “realistic” ‘s appearance.

A quick discussion with my peers (when I project these two images and ask them what is striking for them) reveals a multi-dimensional view. Words like “condition” , “human” , “sympathy” and “life” by their appearances post 1950s suggest a wide and rich range of reasons that made these as key concerns of literature after the people worldwide live through some of the most horrendous times. When I look at this picture, it comes out as a fertile ground for various sort of enquiries – sociological, literary and in writing styles also.

This, I think is the deliverance of digital humanities – these ideas which wouldn’t quite have occurred to an investigator. It has been a valuable tool in my research projects.

Dawn Upon Delhi – Photo exhibition at NGMA

Dawn Upon Delhi photo exhibition, NGMA, Bangalore

Dawn Upon Delhi photo exhibition, NGMA, Bangalore

There’s an interesting exhibition of photographs going on at NGMA, Bangalore titled “Dawn Upon Delhi” this month. It is a rich collection of photographs from the 19th and 20th century Delhi, especially of the time when Delhi went on to become “New” Delhi and the three grand ‘assemblages’ called Durbars. The exhibition is curated by Rahaab Allana and I find it remarkable in the way it is presented. Just the right kind of information panels to go with sets of photographs. The information presented adds a precise context or sometimes thought(s) of the people of that time. Two of these caught my attention as I went along:

On a panel titled ‘Photography and the Durbars’

“the image was an essential component of advancing the cause of British rule in India.” – Governor General Lord Mornington

As I read this quote by Lord Mornington I was reminded of a conversation in a political philosophy lecture where the professor asked the class what role did they think photography played in history, if at all one thought that it did play a role. I think it has been a key instrument (much more than a medium) since its invention  which could advance a certain kind of narrative, a visual one at that and therefore, inviting more credibility. This narrative was often a carefully staged one and highly subjective. It could be argued that photography has always been so but I’d like to contrast the form practiced by British Empire in India from that of the form that is practiced in a world where no nation is a subject of the other. The difference is striking. While it is still used as an instrument to advance a certain perspective or a way of looking at the world, it is different in its fundamental approach. It doesn’t ‘advance a cause’ in such blatant terms as it did for Lord Mornington. Professional associations and photo agencies today have a code of conduct and have clear standards in place with respect to what does one photograph and how does that get used in print, on web and other avenues. This, in spite of the web technologies which have made production, reproduction and publishing of images so easy and cheaper.

The other piece of information which was intriguing is the following where a “modern” development is talked about-

There had been opposition to the Durbars in the vernacular press from as early as Oct 1876, as it coincided with a famine in Deccan – in western and southern India. Photography as a means of  documentation eventually exposed the rampant commercialisation and the concurrent famines during these Durbars. In their pursuit of media attention, Raj policies catalysed another “modern” development: the conflicted relationship between political authorities and a self-regulated autonomous press. No matter how much the authorities herded the crowd and issued traffic pamphlets, the crowd – a mix of classes, nationalities and professions – became an entity and a force that helped determine the trajectories and interpretations of these Durbars. On the other hand, these photographs expressed not only a sense of “order” within the Empire, but also complex and often contradictory beliefs about race, socio-economic culture and history.

This is insightful because in some ways it identifies a period in history where the conflicted relationship between political authorities and an autonomous press might have begun. I couldn’t have traced this relationship back to the time of the 1911 Delhi Durbar. The number of individuals and press agencies covering the Durbar as well as rest of India in early 20th century were a good enough number to be able to present a multi-dimensional view of India and its people. It would have been difficult for the British government to control press in such a landscape. So, while the government went about organizing the Durbar, there were a good lot of independent agencies writing and photographing the Deccan famine. It was only too natural for some of them to contrast the two in their newspapers and periodicals.

What seems interesting about the political events and the press is that there comes a revolution driven by technology (printing press, camera, telephone) which completely alters the way in which events were seen and understood within the country and outside. In a sense, this looks like an ant’s eye view which develops during the first half of 1900s and which gives a complete new understanding of the events, processes and people in the society.

Note: Dawn Upon Delhi (pdf) is a travelling photo exhibition. So do check it out if you happen to be in Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata.