Illuminating India: Photography 1857 - 2017 at the Science Museum

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“If it hadn’t been for this, I wouldn’t necessarily have found out these things unless I went to go and look for them.”

These are the words of Shasti Lowton, the curator of Illuminating India: Photography 1857 - 2017, an exhibition currently running at the Science Museum that documents both the history of India as well as the history of the country’s photographic traditions. She’s discussing what she has learnt from the process of curating the display, and her response feels oddly in keeping with my own – as the daughter of Indian immigrants and as someone with a background in both history and art history, I have never been formally taught about Indian history – cultural or otherwise.

Sashti Lowton, Curator of the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum

Sashti Lowton, Curator of the Illuminating India exhibition at the Science Museum

A Eurocentric and extremely white academic background means the majority of what I know about India’s history is what I’ve actively sought out, be it through random Wikipedia binges, films, or relatives nudging me along the way with books (supplemented, of course, by a childhood reading the Amar Chitra Katha mythology comics). So an exhibition like this is actually - embarrassingly, but beautifully - the eye-opening modern Indian history lesson I never really got.

“It’s been a great opportunity for me to find out about my culture and my heritage,” agrees Shasti, who has similarly found such spaces to be predominantly white. “You realise that what you do is important, because if you’re not there pushing for them, then these stories don’t get told and these exhibitions don’t happen.”

The exhibition opened last year, running alongside a sister-exhibition elsewhere in the museum, covering 5000 years of Indian science. Both were to mark 70 years since Indian Independence and partition, and there are threads of resistance, celebration and quiet empowerment throughout the exhibition – if intermingled with uncomfortable but necessary questions about colonial ethnographies (the photographs of the tribes on the Andaman Islands, for example, do bring to mind some of the questions raised in the National Geographic’s recent editorial on its past) and the violence of change (be it the 1857 mutiny or partition).

The section of the photography exhibit documenting the fight for independence and the struggle of partition is particularly striking. With works by seminal French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson - in black and white mainly, Shasti tells us, because Cartier-Bresson liked the aesthetic - it’s actually quite breathtaking to see the intimate moments of history rolling out before your eyes. There’s the simplicity of Gandhi taking a sip of orange juice to break what would be his last ever fast; the haunted, dazed look on Nehru’s face when he finds out about Gandhi’s assassination and then announces it to a blurry, chaotic crowd; the violent flames of Gandhi’s funeral pyre; and the unfathomable number of people filling the streets and climbing trees to say goodbye to Gandhi’s ashes (people often mistake this photo for a crowd celebrating independence, Shasti says).

There is also one simple but extremely important picture in this area - American photojournalist Margaret Bourke White’s capturing of Jinnah’s 1946 press conference, in which he is announcing his first intention to create an independent Islamic state.

“In my opinion, this is probably the most historically important photograph in this whole exhibition,” says Shasti, “And considering some of the beautiful photos we have, it doesn’t really seem like much – just a man and a microphone. But this moment has changed the course of history forever – for one example, I wouldn’t be standing here today if this moment hadn’t happened.”

Indeed, in putting you in the eye of the partition storm, the whole section does remind you of how visceral and recent that history is: how inherently, as the diaspora on this side of the world, we are still living the consequences of the moments shown in these photographs. These are all parts of our stories: be it the children sitting on the side of the road with their dying grandparents, the crowds of people at Red Fort, displaced and waiting to find out what happens next, or brief but giddy celebrations of independence – the latter captured by India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla.

I mention the female photojournalist because another thing that is particularly notable about the exhibition is the manner in which photography gave Indian women a platform they were not hitherto afforded. It’s there from the very start of the exhibition – for example, the photos of the beautiful 19th century courtesans of Lucknow who Shasti explains would have quietly swayed and influenced the men in power. 

“If you wanted something done, you’d talk to one of these women and she’d whisper into the right man’s ear,” she laughs.

Though India’s written history and fine art might have sidelined women into specific spaces, photography would finally show them as they were. The photos of the Begum of Bhopal - one of India’s only female rulers in the 19th century - find her insisting to the British photographer that he take a photo of her in a different outfit everyday (iconic behaviour to say the least). There are hijras adorned in saris, at a time when they were still revered rather than ostracised. There are also the photos of unknown women on their wedding days, which showcase the once very popular practice of painting on top of the photos – the exhibition’s main promotional image of a couple has the details of garlands and designs painted on, the colour delicately filled in by hand.

It’s a practice that we see in contemporary photography too, bringing us full circle – Sri Lankan, Paris-based photographer Vasantha Yogananthan’s dreamy pastel-hued series taking on the epic of the Ramayana in modern day Nepal and India sees this mixed media of photography with intricate painted-on details (the young boy dressed as Sita is especially brilliant). The work is ongoing, set to be seven parts that will also find Yogananthan shooting sections of the story in Sri Lanka.  

Some of the most sublime moments come in the quiet resistance: be it Mitch Epstein depicting India as it actually was in the 80s to counteract the relentless western narrative of #findingyourself, or Olivia Arthur’s gorgeous black and white shots of the hidden moments of the LGBTQ community, standing proud yet vulnerable in a country that has made their existence illegitimate. There’s also Sohrab Hura’s devastatingly moving “Sweet Life”, a video installation showing photos of his mother over the years, dealing with separation from his father and suffering from schizophrenia, coping with it all through her relationship with their family dog Elsa – it’s poignant, emotional and hugely important, not least given how little we talk about mental health in the South Asian community.

A stunning, thought-provoking exhibition, Illuminating India is an intimate insight into our rich, tumultuous, and deeply beautiful history.