Back to History

by August 25, 2018 0 comments

Back to HistoryA picture is rightly worth a 1000 words. And that’s what Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre is doing with some interesting images from the past.

Armed with smartphones which are loaded with filters aplenty, everyone today has become an ace photographer. So if one revisits the past with its film rolls and their limited number of exposures, is there still room for to preserve history and bring alive stories? And is there any value in such antique and old photographs anymore?

Through an extensive repository of images from the Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archives, an exhibition at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, questions this very nuance recreating the visuals from the life of a ruler who hailed from Nepal in the early 20th century and lived in India. The exhibition, Nirvasanama: Portraits of a Life in Exile Through Changing Viewfinders, is curated by Aditya Arya in collaboration with Isha Singh Sawhney. It exhibits 150 vintage cameras by The Museo Camera —a vintage camera museum — and turn-of-the-century images from the Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archives showcasing the life of exile of Dev Shumsher Singh Rana, a liberal ruler of Nepal, who was usurped by his own brothers.

Sawhney, the great-great-granddaughter of Rana, tells us about how she found the lost treasure.

“They were lying at my house in Dehradun, in the attic-like store for many decades. When my mother attempted a mammoth clean-up, out came these photos. We have grown up looking at these images and wondering about the people and stories behind them. I used to wonder what kind of era and lifestyle it would have had been. After some time, we pulled them out and decided to do something before they completely decayed as they were getting destroyed by mice and dust,” she said.

As you take a walk around the gallery, these unseen and archaic photographs spread across the hall can make you visualise the stories behind them.

Isha narrates what these photographs depict, “The photographs talk about Rana’s children living in Mussourie, at the Fairlawn Palace, in the 1920s and 30s, and a few of them from before 1900s to 1910 as well. This is conceptualised to make people understand the history of who Shumsher Singh Rana was, why did he come to India? What was his exile about? The focus of the story is on the things in their life and his siblings living in Mussourie but the story is contextualised around him.”

Isha believes that “there is always a need to showcase old things because they are precious and could get lost with time. It’s a glimpse into the past that none of us witnessed or experienced. It’s pretty invaluable in that sense.”

She finds it interesting to see them outside, “since these images, photos and art pieces, mostly stay in people’s living rooms, nobody gets to see them other than the those who own them and visit their homes. Taking them out and showing them to the public is a kind of service and a way to give it back to the people and bring them alive again.”

But why is it called the Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archives? Isha has an answer. They decided to “call this collection as ‘Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archives’ since she is the most important person with whom this collection is linked. She was the first collector/saver of these images. That is why they are named after her because a lot of it is a documentation of her life as well.”

Often people’s lives remain a mystery unless there is a bunch of unseen photographs trying hard to narrate something, but often nobody is present to hear them out or comprehend. The same was the case with Isha’s family, who did manage to find out some stories.

She says, “We have heard many stories from our family members but I purposely chose not to bring out those anecdotes and stories as we wanted the focus to be on the photographs in the exhibition. We found out a little bit of political history of Rana by reading books and old papers.”

She explains the significance of the archive and the importance of a good knowledge of history which forms the core of a responsible and socially-aware civilisation. “It’s also important for me since I want people to look at it and visualise about the beautiful era and let them imagine the time and weave their own stories. We didn’t want to put any labels. Maybe that is the next phase. Currently, I just want to reflect on the importance of such antique pictures and real-time anecdotes. They need to know about what existed and differentiate between then and today.”

Arya, who has been a photography afficianado and loves family archives, has always been intrigued by old equipments, which is also reflected in the exhibition.

He showcases vintage cameras which are placed in a studio of sorts and the way they during the time when there were no portable cameras.

“I’m always trying to collect the equipment and cameras which were used earlier to make people understand what kind of a setup was done to shoot then. It’s not only about images since each image is multi-layered with what you see and what you don’t see. You get to see the photographs but not the technology behind it. Hence, there are studios that show how the image was captured then,” he said.

He reveals about the title of the exhibition. Firstly, it was because of the Nepali significance. Secondly, “it was aimed at looking at photography through many angles. Earlier, there were viewfinders in cameras through which the cameraperson would pre-visualise the images in his mind and see the subject through it. But today, there are no viewfinders and one can see the images immediately after clicking them. Today, people are just randomly capturing. However, these old images were created and with them they even created history. Initially, photography was all about pre-visualisation and detailing, unlike today.”

The exhibition visually studies anthropology, by giving us a peep into the life of the early 20th century and spins a narrative around the dressing sense, jewellery and costumes, entertainment customs, objects and stories of yore bringing to life long-lost and forgotten idiosyncrasies and anecdotes.

Writer: Chahak Mittal

Source: The Pioneer

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