Prints from the past

Kutb Minar
Delhi, The Great Arch and the iron pillar at the Qutub Minar by Samuel Bourne, c. 1860 Courtesy MAP / Tasveer

A majestic view of the Hooghly river in Kolkatta in 1726, the Paigah Tomb of Hyderabad in 1863 and the serene Sati Chaura Ghat of Kanpur not long after the first war of indepence are some of the truly scintillating images of colonial India captured by photographer Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd which was on show at the Tasveer Art gallery. These 19th century vintage photographs were sourced from the rich photographic holdings of MAP (Museum of Art & Photography, Bangalore).

“This exhibition was held to mark the tenth season of our gallery. They are not only a sociological account of the time but they also offered a historical peep into our glorious past”, says Ms Shilpa Vijay Krishnan of the Tasveer gallery.

Samuel Bourne who was a clerk had a passion for photography and soon he switched over to his real love for photography. Initially partnering with William Howard, Bourne set up the Howard & Bourne studio in Shimla. They were joined by Charles Shepherd, and with the leaving of William Howard, the studio dropped his name to become Bourne & Shepherd. In 1866, in alignment with a growing culture of studio-photography, the Bourne & Shepherd establishment set up a branch in Calcutta, where it still trades as one of the oldest studios in the world, to this day.  Bourne travelled the sub continent widely — producing over 2000 negatives including some of the finest nineteenth century travel photography. Soon they had clients not just from the East India Company but also from the royalty and the rising middle class who wanted to record events and landmarks in their personal and professional life.

Bourne and Shepherd was also commissioned for special events such as the Delhi Durbar (some images form part of this exhibition). Though Shepherd was also a photographer of some standing, he became more known as a master printer. Samuel Bourne, who soon became the primary photographic expert on India, travelled across the nation and became known for his architectural and topographical photography.

The photographs showed landscapes, views and portraits by photographers Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd and the Bourne & Shepherd studio. Many of these were later made into post cards, illustrations and views and was highly in demand considering the cost of acquiring a real photograph.

“One of the highlights of this exhibition was its reproduction of select prints in enlarged ratios that allows viewers a unique insight into these photographs”, adds Shilpa.

Tasveer has published a catalogue with an essay by Hugh Ashley Rayner, a scholar of early Indian photography on the life and works of Samuel Bourne.

Bourne & Shepherd : Figures In Time was held at Tasveer gallery, Kasturba Cross Road.

Simon Varghese

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