The People of India



The People of India

Edited by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye
Published by W.H. Allen and Co. between 1868 and 1875
468 Albumen prints in 8 volumes 13” x 9.5”
Long out of print.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin


What we have is both an example of the interplay between photographs and text, and a fascinating insight into the mind of the British Raj. The photographs are, for the most part, conventional studio-type portraits of individuals, though there are some fine group studies. It is the texts that are the most revealing: a mixture of gossip, ethnography and military intelligence report, with little attempt at distance or objectivity.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger – The Photobook: A History volume I



From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the British found themselves in direct control over much of the Indian subcontinent. Vastly outnumbered by their subjects and facing a bewildering array of religions, languages, customs, tribes, and castes, the British Raj sought to define (and hence regulate and control) the inhabitants of its Indian territories. If, as Foucault suggests, knowledge is both an effect and instrument of power,1 then the project of understanding the myriad facets present in India culture was also a project of recutting that particular gem in the imperial crown in order to let the light of justification and reason shine on the British Raj.

The “definition” of the Indian peoples took place before there was much in the way of either theory or practice of anthropological study. The project of identification and description filled hundreds of volumes. It was made manifest in the census (and accompanying reports) that began in the early 1870s. It formed a substantial part of a series of gazetteers (generally, one volume for each district) and the administrative manuals to various areas. As British officials with an interest in ethnography began to collect and compile accounts, the project of classifying India’s people took the form of a series of “Castes and Tribes” books for different regions. These were heafty multi-volume works. In terms of such publications, the project could be said to start with Edward Balfour’s 1858 Cyclopaedia of India and close with the 1928 four-volume set Mysore Tribes and Castes.

Within the imperial purview, the need for accurate ethnographic information was made acute by the 1857 rebellion. There was a sense among administrators that lack of cultural knowledge could be fatal.2

The project of understanding the Indian cultural landscape was in no way a small one. It was, in fact, the type of project that could only be undertaken with the resources and urgencies of an empire behind it. In the end it would reveal as much about its authors as it did about its subjects. At its worst the classification system sought to announce a theory of racial types. Certain groups were categorized as criminal tribes or castes. Individuals in these groups were thought to be so addicted to crime that it was a defining characteristic of the group (as opposed to crime being a reaction by individuals to economic or social circumstance). Children who belonged to these groups would necessarily display criminal tendencies when they came of age. As part of the classification project, the Criminal Tribes Act was implemented in 1871. Members of a group so classified lost basic human rights and were required to register and report to police on a regular basis.3

At its best, the project was a formative compendium of ethnographic detail completed by sympathetic and intelligent observers who sought to understand the cultures they were living among. While it was true that it was formative anthropology with a heavy bias, it still managed to preserve a wealth of invaluable detail.

Into this massive endeavour, the photograph brought a new documentary authority. The Peoples of India brought into play a number of diverse (and sometimes contradictory) influences and desires. The book itself is the result of multiple authors and photographers. The photographs “were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the Secretary of State for India in Council.”4 On the most superficial level, the eight-volume set was the result of a desire by Lord Canning (Governor-General of India 1855 – 1862) and his wife to have a photographic souvenir of native Indian people.5 After the events of 1857 the project became an official government study. As official publication it sought to communicate the ideology of the British Raj:

This increasing systematization of caste was intimately connected with the development of photography. As much of the effort of ethnological classification was directed by a search for ‘scientific’ precision, the recording of ‘exact’ images by photography logically complemented the compiling of statistical information. Insofar as a photograph of a ‘typical’ member of an ethnic group could be used to identify the precise characteristics, of physiognomy, dress, and manners, that defined the group as a whole.6

Even given the cumbersome nature of early photography equipment it was lightweight compared to other methods of ethnographic recording. The Schlagintweit brothers, commissioned by the East India Company in 1853 to explore and survey the Himalayas, made a large collection of plaster casts of Indian heads.7

If the transport of life-size plaster casts was difficult, it was probably nothing compared to bringing back the actual people. This was a colonial prerogative from the time of Columbus, but toward the end of the eighteenth century it was done in the name of anthropological science. Franz Boas himself helped to orchestrate the Anthropological Hall at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 where fourteen Kwakiutl were displayed.8

The Peoples of India occupying as it did an uneasy position somewhere between exhibition curiosity and colonial administrative manual was, apparently, largely ignored by the public.9 Many of the photographs are dispassionate, a cross between police line-up and family portrait. They are, of course, remarkable for what they depict and the time they were taken. Many of the group poses are unusual – showing individuals sleeping while leaning up against each other. It is impossible to tell if this was a natural state or a romantic notion on the part of the photographer. There are some excellent portraits in the collection, however, on the whole the photography lacks the impact of a unified vision or an emotional attachment to the subjects. Despite its failings, a photographic project of the range and scope of The People of India would not be undertaken again. The apparatus of the State would switch to photographing individual criminals, and the public’s interest in diverse cultures would be satisfied by professional photographers and travel writers.

The photographs collected were destined for the London International Exhibition of 1862 but, according to John Falconer in his essay “A Passion for Documentation” through lack of time and organization, most of the material arrived too late for inclusion in the exhibition.”

From Volume I, Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar

From Volume I, “Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar”

1. I owe this concise statement of Foucault to Nicholas B. Dirks who stated it in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of Modern India, published in 2001 by Princeton University Press.

2. From the British perspective the Indian “Mutiny” was largely explained by a failure of cultural knowledge:
“The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. These rifles, which fired Minié balls, had a tighter fit than the earlier muskets, and used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef; which would be offensive to Hindus, or lard derived from pork; which would be offensive to Muslims.”

3. Criminal Tribes Act. 1871

4. Preface to  The People of India, the full title of which is The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations with Descriptive Letterpress of The Races And Tribes Of Hindustan, Originally Prepared Under The Authority of The Government of India and Reproduced by Order of The Secretary of State for India In Council.

5. Charles Canning was not disinterested in culture having served on the Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49).

6. Thomas R. Metcalf 1997 The New Cambridge History of India. Volume 3, Part 4, Ideologies of the Raj, pg 119.

7. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 79.

8. “The Visual in Anthropology” David MacDougall in Rethinking Visual Anthropology ed. Marus Banks, Howard Morphy 1997 Yale University Press p 276.

9. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 82



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