A photograph has two stories to tell: one that lies within its frame, and another that lies beyond it. In Sarmaya’s debut exhibition, Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits, a collection of photographs tells multiple tales — tales that chronicle not only the history of a country but also the history of photography itself. Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits uses the socio-historical context of time to explore not just the subject of the image but the perspective of the photographer and the agenda of those who commissioned them.The story begins with a landmark moment of Indian history — the Mutiny of 1857; and traverses well into the turn of the 20th century. Along the way, one learns about how a nation developed, the context in which it grew, and the history it created when it did. A history that comes alive through photographs from the personal collection of Paul Abraham, who launched Sarmaya in 2015, in the memory of his late wife, Tina. “I was struck by the extraordinary effort required to capture these images in the early days of photography by mavericks like Samuel Bourne, James Burgess, Raja Deen Dayal and Felice Beato. Today when we use our mobile phones and click away, we forget that once upon a time, every photograph was an adventure,” says Abraham.The exhibition — curated by Madhavan Pillai and designed by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah — features the works of pioneering image-makers: Felice Beato, remembered in history as the world’s first ‘war photographer’; Samuel Bourne, the legendary travel photographer, who founded India’s longest running photo studio, Bourne & Shepherd, and Raja Deen Dayal, India’s very own royal photographer of sorts, among others. “The exhibition seeks to redefine and diversify the meaning and relevance of portraits and nation apart from the classical connotations which existed in the 19th century and now,” says Pillai.
Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits, apart from being a lesson in history, also highlights technical processes, which went into making the first photographs. The six sections of the exhibition include an array of photographs drawn from various points of Indian history. From Felice Beato’s images of the aftermath of the Uprising of 1857 and Samuel Bourne’s picturesque Himalayan landscapes, the exhibition moves on to architectural photography of monuments and heritage sites. Further sections of the exhibition showcase images of the populace that constituted 19th century India — occupations, tribal lifestyle and men of religion, moving on to the royals and the rich commissioning painted photographs, and finally culminating in a section highlighting the technical variety of photographic prints. Sarmaya also holds an impressive collection of photographic albums, six of which on display add further gravitas to the exhibition. Additionally, an interactive installation of “carte-de-visite” images, provide a contemporary reinterpretation of 19th century photographic enterprises.A special section, done in collaboration with the Dharavi Art Room, has on display, photographs taken by five children from Dharavi, of Dharavi — a young insider’s perspective into Asia’s largest slum.