Malavika Karlekar

Arts Research and Documentation
1999-2000

Grant Period: Over two years

Contemporary interest in nineteenth century Bengal has seen a considerable amount of attention directed towards the lesser known cultural dimensions of that period, and studies have focused on cultural changes of the time as a means to understand Bengali society in transition. Malavika Karlekar’s project explores the role that photography played in both documenting and shaping upper and middle class urban Bengali society in the late nineteenth century. Karlekar, who has a degree in sociology and is a scholar and teacher of repute, found herself drawn to this subject while researching and writing a book on the early personal narratives of Bengali women. It was while putting together photographs for this book that she realised that a study of the origins and role of photography in Bengal could be a potentially exciting project.It is the concept of photography as a social tool that forms the crux of Karlekar’s study. In order to allow for a more concrete understanding of this history, she will look at the contributions of two pioneers of the time – Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri and Maharaja Birchandra of Tripura.

She has chosen to focus on the decades between 1860 and 1920. To begin with, she is interested in recording the origins of photography in Bengal and its development from documentary apparatus to a fascinating means of self-representation for a changing society. Photography came to India during the middle of the nineteenth century when the East India Company decided that it would enhance the accuracy of Company drawings and representations. By the start of the period that forms the scope of Karlekar’s study there was a Photographic Society in Bengal and already considerable amateur interest in this new artistic medium. While photography attracted mainly Englishmen and only a handful of Indians from elite families when it first took root in Bengal, within a couple of decades it was accessible to the average person.

The culmination of her interest in these developments is a proposed study of the innovations and experiments of Upendrakishore Raychaudhuri and Maharaja Birchandra of Tripura. Karlekar reveals that a close look at the work and creative impulse of these two individuals would not only help to capture the zeitgeist of nineteenth century upper class Bengali society, but also capture its distinct ways. Raychaudhuri was very much a renaissance figure. He was also a photographic inventor who wrote articles about and made contributions to photographic technique. Maharaja Birchandra too was a consummate photographer, though different in sensibility and approach to his contemporary. It is this contrast that interests Karlekar. She intends to study these two individuals in conjunction, particularly to illustrate how photography appealed to a range of people from different backgrounds.

While the contributions of these two individuals will form the pivot of her research, it is the ‘imaging of the middle class Bengali’ that constitutes her perspective on photography in nineteenth century Bengal. What particularly interests her is how photographs came to encapsulate many of the changes that Bengali society was undergoing – changing professions, the evolution of the nuclear family, the progress of girls’ education, and altered women’s roles. Photographs will therefore form Karlekar’s primary source material. The family of Upendrakishore Ray has maintained an archive of his work and that of other members of his family to which she mentions it would be possible to gain access. A niece of Maharaja Birchandra has a substantial collection of family photographs, and is willing to provide access to these. She will also refer to collections in libraries and archives such as the National Library, Calcutta, West Bengal State Archives, National Archives, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, besides studying the photographic collections of the Oriental and India Office Collection at the British Library, London, the Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, the Royal Commonwealth Society at the University of Cambridge, and the South Asian Archive at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of South Asian Studies. She intends to provide a wider context for the photographs by looking at alternative data sources like letters, personal narratives and other family documents, as also secondary material. Karlekar’s aim is to situate the history of photography in Bengal in a socio-cultural context. She intends to work her findings into a book that will be in the nature of a social history of Bengal through photographs.