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A matter of record

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

There is a growing interest in acquiring photographic archives but collectors wonder what’s in it for them

By a curious coincidence, the very month that a retrospective of photo-journalist Henri Cartier-Bresson’s archive opened in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in sweltering New Delhi the archive of photo-journalist Kulwant Roy was released in the form of a book (History in the Making, Harper Collins, Rs 4,999).

The two have at best a tenuous link. Roy’s work was almost entirely devoted to Indian politics while Bresson’s work in India includes photographing the aftermath of Gandhi’s death and an image of Kashmiri women that is one of the most iconic works of 20th century photography. However, they do leave us with the question of whether an archive has any value beyond the normative.

India is beginning to shed its hesitation about the value of such an archive as images get imbued with contemporary value to document our visual histories. In recent times there has been a proliferation of images of our cities as they were photographed in the twenties and thirties — Bombay, or the making of New Delhi, for instance, both of which have gone into the making of books by publishers Roli . These images are researched from archives based not in India but overseas (in this instance, most of the evocative images came from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London).

Back home, museums usually lack the funds or the intellectual curiosity to document their photographic archives, or to share these with the public, but private sources have begun the process of documenting such collections professionally. For many years, the best photographic archives of a royal family were maintained by the Maharaja Ganga Singhji Trust in Bikaner, and are probably still among the most stunning such records available in the country. Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik first shot to fame among the international glitterati with a book composed entirely of these photographs.

More recently, the Udaipur royal family turned over its photographic material to professional archivists, as a result of which it has been able to mount a remarkable exhibition. The Ebrahim Alkazi collection, begun several decades ago, has been selectively shown and includes, for instance, the earliest and rarest photographic glimpses of Indian cities, whether cityscapes of Calcutta or ruins in the countryside, the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny in Lucknow, or portraits of the formidable-looking begums of Bhopal. More recently, a Delhi-based art gallery has acquired the archive of photographer Nemai Ghosh’s work on Satyajit Ray — though such acquisitions remain the exception rather than the norm.

While it is true that an institution is better organised to maintain and leverage an archival collection — certainly, the process is a little formidable, and the collection needs to be organised in temperature- and access-controlled environments — individual collectors need only be wary of their commitment to such effort. The Kulwant Roy archive, for instance, was transferred over a period of time by him to acolyte and photographer Aditya Arya’s family home, and there it remained for years. Its happenstance rediscovery and the work Arya has subsequently done on its documentation is now a gift to writers and historians who have one of the most exhaustive records of pre- and post-independence political photography at hand.

Attempts at glory aside, what value does an archive have for a collector? Not, of course, the ownership of an idea, since scholars view things differently from a collector or archivist and they use such materials to argue out their own ideas than any premise the archive owner might presume. Therefore, the importance lies in an archive becoming a pivot for a variety of often contrarian ideas, the centre-point for discussion and debate.

Over time, it also has monetary value: to be sold as a whole, or piecemeal in edition prints to other collectors, to earn royalty from copyright, to be credited every time it is used as reference anywhere in the world, to be turned into books or collaterals. Or sometimes, these archives can be used just for fun, as hotelier and collector of printed materials Priya Paul showed when, at the start of the year, she surprised friends with a table calendar consisting of images of printed calendars from years long past. It was culled from her collection of old calendars and printed materials (labels, advertisements, posters) that are being professionally archived and will be an invaluable social and perhaps even nationalist record for future writers, art-historians, scholars and anyone with an eye for the quirky, for it is at least as serious as the visual archives of Kulwant Roy or Nemai Ghosh, or the eponymous Alkazi collection.

Or, for that matter, Umrao Sher-Gil’s photographs of his family which gained archival value as a visual essay on his daughter Amrita and the Sher-Gil family when it was re-interpreted by artist and fellow family member Vivan Sundaram as a museum show that has been extremely well received in Europe. Clearly, in the right hands, photography archives can have infinite possibilities.

These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.

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First Published: Wed, April 28 2010. 00:52 IST