The book showcases treasures from the ASI’s archives—among them, works of well-known photographers, some never published before. By LYLA BAVADAM
CUSTODIANS of the Past is a book that celebrates 150 years of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It reproduces more than 200 photographs from the ASI’s bountiful archives besides presenting a comprehensive timeline that details its initially shaky foundations and then the steady growth under men who were deeply committed to documenting every vine-encased carved pillar and every seeming irregularity in a landscape that may hide a relic of past civilisations. Though the ASI was formed in 1861, the abiding interest of the British in India’s past had them formally and informally documenting the country’s history and culture long before that. One example is the creation of the “Asiatick” Society of Bengal in 1784. Their keen interest unquestionably documented and helped preserve Indian history. The book pays homage to this dedication and acknowledges the work of that vast strata of people who do the real work—the diggers, pandits, munshis and draftsmen.
The editors of the book —Gautam Sengupta, Director General (Retired) of the ASI, and Abha Narain Lambah, the conservation architect—sifted through hundreds of archival albums that still bear the markings and nomenclature of British India. Some hold photographs of the Indus Valley and other excavation sites that are now in Pakistan. These volumes remained with India after 1947.
Possibly, the most gratifying aspect of Custodians is the large format photographs reproduced from the ASI’s archives, some never before published as well as rare ones of archaeological excavations and conservation. Photography arrived in India in the mid-19th century and the ASI took to it enthusiastically. By the end of the 19th century, 13 photographers were employed part-time or full-time by the ASI. Early documentation was often entrusted to military men who doubled up as photographers as they also did for cast-making and other activities. “Native draftsmen” were also called on to work as photographers. Photography in that era required a thorough understanding of the nature of chemicals, light, exposure settings and the actual workings of a camera but “native” draftsmen like Ghulam Nabi and photo assistants like Babu Pindi Lal took to the new craft easily, creating memorable photographs.
As co-editor Abha Narain Lambah leafed through the ancient volumes, she realised that the photos were more than just an archaeological record. They were a documentation of the works of some of the earliest photographers. They were pioneers who lugged around equipment that was cumbersome, adapted their technology to the circumstances, and made do with whatever was at hand to create photographs that, even a century later, absorb the viewer completely. The photographs show a dedication to the craft in which the picture was the sole focus, with no self-conscious impositions of the photographer’s skills. The end results have an unmistakable stamp of honesty—an advantage for those who want an accurate record of the past.
Among the military men who worked with the ASI, Major Robert Gill is possibly the most well-known for his stupendous work on Ajanta and Ellora, a task for which he spent 27 years on-site, replicating paintings and taking photographs. The replicas were, sadly, destroyed in a fire while being exhibited in England. He also documented monuments in districts under the Nizam of Hyderabad. So valued was his work that the government kept possession of his negatives and issued copies at the rate of Rs.25 a picture—a large sum in 1872. Professional photographers were soon drawn to the work of the ASI, and not just because they were paid well. Working in the wet process, they were allowed Rs.4 a negative, and for prints four annas (one rupee was 16 annas) a plate was considered “more than sufficient to cover the expense of paper and chemicals”. The names of Charles Shepherd, Lala Deen Dayal, Samuel Bourne, Nicholas & Co., G.W. Lawrie, Wiele & Klein, John Johnston, Baker and Burke figure frequently in the archives; some photos are signed, as the editors of Custodians were delighted to discover.
The ASI’s archives are full of such work and more from amateur photographic societies in the country. With the government promoting photography of the monuments, interest in them grew despite difficulties, one of which was enumerated in a letter written from India and read out in a meeting of the London Photographic Society. Photography in India, said the writer, was difficult because of “the nature of the climate, the foliage never being in repose… the enormous extra cost of chemicals and their inferiority to English chemicals, the cost being three to four hundred per cent higher”.
Custodians throws open the doors to a past that is shut to all but the most exalted. Leave alone the ASI archives, which even students of architecture find difficult to access, so many public monuments are chained, locked and barred.
If there is to be conservation, there also needs to be pride and this stems from a sense of public ownership. This book has the potential to do just that. If it served as a stimulus for future conservation—and there is no reason why it should not—it would be a tremendous fillip to conservation and a fitting tribute to 150 years of the ASI’s work.