Ol photographs of Assam

The Camera


Advent of Photography in Assam

Most historians have ignored visual collections as a device for studying the past. The visual medium however often provides an outlet to understanding complex issues of the past and act as evidence for historical arguments. Veteran journalist V.B. Ganeshan while reviewing the path-breaking work on the history of Mizoram - Camera As Witness, draws our attention to the significance of photographs as tools of historical enquiry when he writes, "Photographs are of particular interest because they were created exactly at the time when the events or conditions occur, whereas other primary sources (such as letters, memoirs, autobiographies or oral histories) are usually recorded later. According to him the photographs provide instantaneous eyewitness (or rather camera-witness) accounts.


When the first publicly announced photographic process - daguerreotype (developed by a Frenchman named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre) was commercially introduced in 1839, it swiftly travelled to colonial India. Several studios owned by Europeans came up. In many of these the natives worked as servants but in quick time they learnt the trick of the trade. Soon, photographic societies were set up in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras which played a key role in familiarizing the practice of photography. A number of amateur photographers received the patronage of the colonial government especially during the Viceroyship of Lord Canning and were sent all over the sub-continent to document the architectural and ethnic diversity of the sub-continent.

Photography arrived in Assam in the mid-19th century. However visual representations of this isolated corner of the empire followed soon after the conquest of Assam. Lithographic portraits of Hill Miris and Nyishis by Colesworthy Grant that appeared in his Sketches of Oriental Heads in the 1840s were important precursors to photographs. Grant’s portrait of a Miri couple entitled, Tema, Huzara, and his Wife. Hill Mirees is noted for the convincing detail of clothing, machetes and ornamentation. Similarly, Major John Butler's collection of prints titled, A Sketch of Assam (1847) is another important documentation from this period. The earliest known photograph was taken at Dibrugarh by Rev. Edward H. Higgs of St. Paul’s church. Dating to the late 1850s, this was a portrait of a young woman. It belonged to Sergeant Major George Carter and was found being pasted in his scrapbook. George Carter interestingly was in Assam when the Rebellion of 1857 occurred and was a witness to its repercussions in the region. The young woman is identified by Carter as the daughter of a Chief of the Abor tribe. She is seen wearing a full set of necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Another notable photographer of this period is Sir Benjamin Simpson. He took several portraits of tribal people like Khamptis, Singphos, Kacharis, Miris etc. and his photographs were admired in exhibitions like the Annual Exhibition held by the Bengal Photographic Society in Calcutta and the International Exhibition held in London in 1862.


Christopher Pinney (The Coming of Photography in India, 2008) points out that in the Age of Empire, apart from accumulating ethnological information officially commissioned photography served other purposes as well. The colonial administrators used photography as a tool to record their political and military achievements. It is discernible in the photographs taken by the French doctor turned photographer Oscar Jean Baptiste Mallitte (1829-1905), who visited Assam in the 1870s when the colonial government had already consolidated its hold over the region. Incidentally, Mallitte also took the first photographs of Andaman island. Prasanta Das, a keen collector of colonial photographs of North-Eastern India writes that Malitte's photographs preserved by the British Library are the most significant of the earliest photographs because 'they are a visual approximation of the way the British saw Assam ... a remote frontier that needed to be ‘improved’ and incorporated into the colonial and imperial system.' They narrate some of the changes brought about by the colonial administration that includes introduction of law and order, tea gardens and steamers. This collection is a visual record of nineteenth century Assam.


Colin Murray, the head photographer and later the proprietor of the historic photography and artists' studio based in Calcutta : Bourne & Shepherd visited Assam during this period along with his large retinue of ‘coolies’, who carried the camera equipment and chests of glass plates and chemicals. He became a provider of the views of the tea garden landscape and architectural conception of the Planter Raj (bungalows of plantation owners and bastis or ghettos of plantation labourers). Christian missionaries who had come to Assam to spread the gospel of Christ were also keen and sometimes very competent amateur photographers. One of the earliest photographs taken by a missionary is of two Naga traders in front of the Shiva Dol in Sivasagar, taken in the year 1872. Mention may be made of late Inez Ulery McGuire who collected images that captured the scenic view of the region. A number of photographs of early Khasi converts to Christianity taken by missionaries is to be found in the biography Father Otto Hopfenmüller, a pioneering catholic missionary to the Khasi Hills who passed away in 1890. A few other notable European photographers also came to Assam during the late nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth century. In addition to clicking portraits of British officials and plantation owners they took officially commissioned photographs of tea labourers and tribesmen. Photographical documentation of the aftermath of the Great Earthquake of 1897 was carried out by Richard Dixon Oldham and his team from Geological Survey of India which were later added to Oldham’s memoir (1899).


As the colonial administrative apparatus slowly made inroads into the tribal tracts, photography served as a reliable scientific way of documenting knowledge about the natives. British anthropologists and botanists like J.H. Hutton, J.P. Mills and Ursula Graham Bower who worked in the Naga Hills kept a photographic record of the tribal way of life. These photographs form an integral part of our website as it throws light on the cultural diversity of Assam during the period under our scrunity when it comprised of areas that are now a part of other states of Northeast India. British anthropologists and botanists like J.H. Hutton, J.P. Mills and Ursula Graham Bower who worked in the Naga Hills kept a photographic record of the tribal way of life.  These photographs form an integral part of our website as it throws light on the cultural diversity of Assam during the period under our scrutiny when it comprised of areas that are now a part of other states of the North-East.

A close study of the memoirs of the Assamese gentry of those times reveal that the Assamese speaking middle class were first introduced to photography in erstwhile Calcutta during the late nineteenth century as attested by the portraits of Assamese students who undertook a 'secular pilgrimage' to the imperial capital. The earliest photograph of an Assamese student that I have traced so far is that of Bolinarayan Bora (1871), who became a Gilchrist scholar and went to England to study at the Royal Indian Engineering College.


Like their counterparts in the rest of the country, portrait photography was utilized by the Assamese elite to "fashion 'a self' at variance with their status as subjects of the British Empire". Photography studios soon came up in urban areas like Guwahati, Tezpur, Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Nagaon, Shillong and Kohima. Although, few in number they were catering to an increasing demand. Ghoshal Brothers and College Studio were two prominent early studios. Gradually, the scope of photography also widened. Joy L. K. Pachuau & Willem van Schendel emphasises how 'indigenous people' in the Lushai Hills used cameras to produce distinct modern identities and represent themselves to themselves, consistently contesting outsiders' imaginations of them as isolated, backward and in need of upliftment.


Among the pioneering local photographers, Muktanath Bordoloi (Dibrugarh), Bimal Bhattacharya, Pradip Singha (Tezpur), Deva Kumar Sen (founder of Arun Studio in Nagaon), Pratap Barua (prodigious artist and cinematographer), Madhav Chandra Bezbarua and Nirod Roy (founder Secretary of the first photography society of Assam) gained wide acclaim. Muktanath Bordoloi was perhaps the most sought after photographer of that period. He was also an accomplished painter, known particularly for his portraits of some influential Assamese figures. Pratap Chandra Barua, who died at the age of twenty-seven worked as a cinematographer in Lahore.


The role of literary magazines like Avahon, which popularised photojournalism is noteworthy, especially in changing the approach of the people towards this technological innovation. The Zamindars of Gauripur and Rupashi imported camera equipments from erstwhile Calcutta. Renowned film maker Pramathesh Barua, son of the Zamindar of Gauripur was a very competent photographer. Kodak box cameras, Norton, Bay Brownies, Agfa and Rolleiflex cameras were popular during this time. The scenario changed further after independence when cameras became easily available. Several important events were saved for posterity through this medium and photography was taken up as a serious profession. Devi Das of Guwahati, for instance became well-known for taking photographs of notable personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and Lord Mountbatten and landmark events like Bordoloi Trophy and wrestling matches involving Dara Singh and King Kong. Photography studios became common and photographers like Amulya Manna and Nalini Barua received international recognition.


This is however only a basic outline of how the practice of photography evolved in this peripheral area of India. Most historians have ignored visual collections as a device for studying the past. Photographs however provide an outlet to understanding the complexities of multiplicities and act as evidence for historical arguments. They can act as a medium to gain information about the lives of ordinary people; highlight multiple forms of modernity and to grasp the enormous socio-economic and political changes that not only changed the entire landscape of the region but also had its bearing on the mainland.

An abridged version of this essay was published in The Assam Tribune on 6 November, 2020. We are currently working on the photography archive. It will be out soon. 

                                                                                                                                                                             Avinibesh Sharma

                                                                                                                                                                         Concept & Project Head