Photograpy, India, Portraits, Anglo Indians, Family and me

Month: July, 2012

The People of India

The preface

During the administration of Lord Canning, from 1856 to 1863, the interest which had been created in Europe by the remarkable development of the photographic Art, communicated itself to India, and originated the desire to turn it to account in the illustration of topography, architecture, and ethnology of that country.

There were none, perhaps, in whom this interest was awakened more strongly than in Lord and lady canning. It was their wish to carry home with them, at the end of their sojourn in India, a collection, obtained by private means, of photographic illustrations, which might recall to their memory the peculiarities of Indian life.

The great convulsion of 1857-58, while it necessarily retarded for a time all scientific and artistic operations, imparted a new interest to the country which had been the scene of, and to the people who had been the actors in these remarkable events. When, therefore, the pacification of India had been accomplished, the officers of the Indian services, who had made themselves acquainted with the principles and practice of photography, encouraged and patronized by the Governor-General, went forth, and traversed the land in search of interesting subjects. 

In this way the design soon exceeded the dimensions of a mere private collection; but Lord Canning felt that its importance was sufficient to warrant official sanction and development, and, therefore, placed the matter in the hands of Mr. Clive Bayley, his home secretary. Some or the more important results appear in the present work.

The photographs were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the secretary of state for India council.

After a time, it appeared that a sufficient number of illustrations had been received from various parts of India, fairly to represent the different varieties of the Indian races. The negatives remained in India; but from the plates sent home it was easy to produce fresh negatives, the prints of which might bee multiplied to any extent. The secretary of state in council sanctioned this operation, and the work was executed by Mr. W. Griggs, at the India museum, under the superintendence of Dr. Forbes Watson.

In many cases some descriptive account of the tribes represented accompanied the photographs sent from India. These varied greatly in amplitude and value. But on the whole it may be said that they were sufficient to constitute the basis of the sketches contributed by Mr. John R. Melville, Colonel Meadows Taylor, Mr Kaye, Dr Forbes Watson, and others. These sketches do not profess to be more than mere rough notes, suggestive rather than exhaustive, and they make no claim to aspire to scientific eminence, it is hoped that, in a ethnological point of view, it will not be without interest and value.

Extract taken from The people of India volumes at Birmingham Central Library.





Damaging history

Since I first discovered the People of India volumes in 2005 I have now spent hour upon hour in the archives of Birmingham library. I have slowly turned the pages of these books as I searched for places and faces that I recognise. No matter how carefully I have tried not to spoil these precious artefacts, every time I have turned a page a creek or a crack of the dried gum binding that runs down the spine of each book reminds me that as an archaeologist searches for evidence of the past he also destroys much of the present.


As I lift the books to put them back on the shelf dust remains on the table.


Jason Tilley

The People of India

During the year of 2005 and after an initial meeting with Pete James at Birmingham Central Library I was introduced to original copies of ‘The people of India’ that are held at the library. This mammoth publication, eight volumes in total, was brought together by John William Kaye and John Forbes Watson between 1868 and 1875, few complete sets of this extrodianry document exist today.

The books are full of pasted on albumen prints, 486 in total. These photographs would have been reproduced by contact printing from copy negatives. After the books conception every stage of production would have been a monumental achievement for the photographers, the writers, printers and editors.

The Victorian tone and derogitory text that accompany the beautiful photographs cause discomfort to many in the west these days but they are also a document of there time, recording for  us and reminding us of British views of dominance and superiority. The words and the reasons for publication aside the stunning images will always remain  a staggering photographic record that documented the diversity of the people who inhabited India for the centuries before colonisation.

Jason Tilley