Paper Abstracts for MLA 2012 Panel 16: "Beyond the Colonial Gaze: Photorealism and Photojournalism in India, 1870-1930"

Panel is Thursday., Jan. 5, 2012, 12-1:15 PM in Jefferson room, Sheraton Hotel

Paper 1. "'To Capture a Picture': The Novel and Photographic Realism in Late-Nineteenth-Century North India," Jennifer Dubrow, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

This paper explores the connection between realism and photography in late-nineteenth-century north India through the case of Fasana-e Azad, arguably the first Urdu novel. The work of Ratan Nath Sarshar (1847-1904), Fasana-e Azad inspired a storm of activity among Urdu readers and critics. Its publication in daily installments within the Urdu newspaper Avadh Akhbar helped to significantly expand the growing reading public for the novel. Furthermore, Fasana-e Azad's discussion through readers' letters and author's editorials valuably illuminates how the novel was understood in late-nineteenth-century north India.

In this paper I focus on a series of statements made by Fasana-e Azad's author Ratan Nath Sarshar in which he laid out a new definition of realism as "to capture a picture" (tasvir khincna). I examine this phrase's connection to both the growing movement of natural poetry in Urdu and the rise of photography and other mass visual media in the city of Lucknow. Unlike in Victorian England where the connection between realism and photography has now been established, the relationship of literature to visual media has remained unexplored in the scholarship on Urdu and other Indian literary traditions. I trace how Sarshar and his readers focused on photography's affective quality, which they interpreted as its ability to penetrate directly to the viewer's heart and excite emotion. They claimed that the realistic novel would do the same.


Paper 2. "The Interplay of Journalism, Realism, and Artistry in the Photography of Lala Deen Dayal," Deborah Hutton, Coll. of New Jersey

Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1905; active 1874-1905), India’s most celebrated 19th-century photographer, established his reputation taking pictures of architecture, landscapes, and important people and events of the day—subject matter that falls squarely into the category of documentary photography. Originally trained as a surveyor, Dayal tended to favor an elevated, “all-seeing,” modern empirical vantage point in his photography, thereby augmenting the sense that his pictures acted as encompassing and straightforward visual documents. Yet, Dayal, his patrons, and late 19th-early 20th century reviewers of his work widely considered him an “Artist-Photographer.” Indeed, the Bombay Gazette, in its lengthy obituary of Dayal proclaimed him “India’s first great photographer and artist.” Clearly, this suggests that the question of photography’s status as art versus its role as an indexical record of things, so forcefully debated in 19th-century England and France, was not central to the medium’s practice and reception in India. What then was the relationship between the “artistry” of Dayal’s photographs and their “realism”?

Dayal’s images circulated in several mediated formats that further complicate this question. Throughout the 1880s and 90s, many of his photographs served as sources for engravings published in popular London-based illustrated news magazines such as The Graphic. Somewhat ironically, the photojournalistic (re)use of his pictures relied upon another artist (the engraver) to translate the images into an easily reproducible form (newspapers and magazines did not yet have the capacity to easily print photographs), thereby negating, it would seem, the indexical value of the original photographs. During the same period, detailed written descriptions of his photographs frequently appeared in regional as well as India-wide newspapers, without any accompanying images. In these instances, Dayal’s photographs transformed from being realistic record of events to newsworthy events themselves to be documented and evaluated. How did the widespread circulation of Dayal’s photographs in these two mediated formats affect their reception as photojournalistic documents and art-objects? And what can these formats tell us about the criteria on which his photographs, and presumably others, were judged?

By focusing on these printed references to and reuses of Deen Dayal’s images, as well as Dayal’s own framing of his work in writing and advertising, my paper will explore the interplay between journalism, realism, and artistic value in the reception of Dayal’s photography. By probing these relationships, I hope not just to call into question the dichotomy between art photography and documentary photography, inherited from debates in 19th century France and England and still dominating the structure of “world” history of photography textbooks. I also hope to both broaden and sharpen ongoing discourse about how photographic imagery was viewed and valued in late 19th-century India.


Paper 3. "Emergent Photographic Genres and the News: Snapshot Photography, Film, and the Illustrated Photo Book," Sudhir Mahadevan, Univ. of Washington, Seattle

Mahadevan follows photography's engagement with mass culture and its intersection with other media forms in the first few decades of the twentieth century. His paper examines the emergence of vernacular and prosaic photographic genres at the turn of the twentieth century in South Asia, with the advent of the halftone process and the portable hand camera. He juxtaposes three forms of visual representation: a cinematic record of a grandiose imperial ritual, the Delhi Durbar of 1902-3, a photo-illustrated book of the same event, and snapshots produced of political turmoil in later decades of the twentieth century by amateur and anonymous photographers. He argues that these new formats and genres wrested conceptions of topicality, newsworthiness and the "eventful" from the domain and control of the state.

Send questions about this workspace to Jennifer Dubrow.