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In Pragati: Book Review – Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road

(This review appeared in Oct 2011 edition of Pragati)

In the 19th century, Britain went on a world wide bloodthirsty rampage: they were involved in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Anglo-Indian war of 1857, Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) and the Anglo-Sudan War (1870s) and a photographer named Felice Beato was present to capture all of them on film. Like Ibn Batuta who roamed around Dar al-Islam documenting the customs and traditions of various countries, Beato visited the countries occupied by the British and captured the war, landscapes and local life using the newly invented medium.

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road by Anne Lacoste and Fred Ritchin features a selection of photographs he took in India, China, Burma, Korea and Japan covering significant events in the history of those countries. For people back in Britain, Beato’s photographs gave an early realistic depiction of the cultures they had conquered. His photographs about India during the Anglo-Indian war are important now not just because of their historical significance, but also because they reveal a lot about the colonial attitudes of that period.

Felice Beato was an Italian who had settled in Constantinople as an apprentice to Scottish photographer James Robertson. In 1858, he left Constantinople for Calcutta and spent the next two years photographing the final phases of the Anglo-Indian war of 1857. Beato did not introduce photography to India; British officials were already using for more than a decade and there were photographic societies in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

By the time Beato reached Calcutta, the war of 1857, which was planned by leaders like Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, and Baija Bai Shinde, had shocked the English and they had retaliated using extreme brutality. Citing the murder of women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) by Indian soldiers, they discarded their usual pretence to civilized behavior and embarked on a death march to clear the villages which supported the army. At the start of 1858, Delhi and Kanpur were in English hands; Awadh was cut off from Central India and Lucknow’s fate was uncertain. Kalpi was the headquarters of the freedom fighters and Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai were still holding out.

Beato went to Cawnpore, Delhi and Lucknow and documented the damage caused by the war. Photographers of that period had severe technological limitations: the equipment was heavy and the photographer also had to carry glass plates and chemicals. Since lengthy exposures were required and the negatives had to be developed within minutes, the photographer could not be in the middle of the battle; he could capture the scene before the battle or after it was done.

(via Wikipedia)

He reached Lucknow a few weeks after the city was captured by British forces under Sir Colin Campbell and one of the gruesome photographs he took in Sikandar Bagh shows a partially destroyed building with skeletons scattered all around with a few locals passively watching them. The skeletons were of the 1,800 Sepoys bayoneted by the British troops and left to the dogs and vultures in November 1857. There is controversy regarding this photograph: Sir Colin Campbell probably not wanting to suggest that the corpses were left to rot in the open wrote that Beato dug up the bones and laid them out for dramatic effect, but a reporter from The Times who visited Sikandar Bagh around the same period remembered many skeletons still lying around. Even if it was staged, there was nothing unusual about it. His contemporaries who were covering other wars too did it for dramatic effect.

Another photograph from the same period shows the hanging of two sepoys: In the picture two people are hanging by their necks watched by a group of turbaned soldiers. The caption claims that the soldiers were from the 31st Native Infantry who were being hanged in Lucknow. Even that is not without controversy. First, the 31st Native Infantry did not participate in the war and second, they were based in Sagar. So it is possible that there is a mistake in documentation or that they simply were villagers hanged by the English as part of their campaign of brutality.

Beato, the lucid strategist, was on the side of the British and showed no compassion for the conquered or the dead. He was quite different from the British soldier named Clive Branson who served in India in 1942. Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchil’s Secret War mentions Branson who roamed around the countryside visiting villages and socializing with the locals since his unit was not doing anything important. As he traveled, he felt ashamed of his country and the fact that he was one among them. Beato never felt that way. He earned his living by selling photographs like the hangings to soldiers and onlookers as souvenirs as well as by taking flattering portraits of Army officers. He ingratiated himself with British officials and his enthusiastic documentation of their triumphs got him a into prominent locations like Lucknow as soon as it was retaken. He also was an ‘embedded’ war photographer in the Second Opium War and captured the war in all its horror. Each catastrophe thus cemented his reputation.

Another area in which he specialized was architecture. Thus when he went around India, he took pictures of the Taj, Benares, the Golden Temple and various palaces. He also specialized in taking panoramic shots. Currently you can use the stitching feature of photoshop software to generate panoramas from a series of photographs, but during Beato’s time you had to take a series of overlapping photos carefully, develop the negatives quickly to maintain the uniform tone and join the pictures manually. His panoramas in India include those of Delhi, Lucknow, Qutub Minar and the entrance to the Juma Masjid which were around five to seven feet in length.

Beato was not caught up in political correctness and photographed British brutality for commercial benefits. He took photos of drawings of beheadings in Japan and photographs of dead bodies in China; in China one of the military surgeons noted Beato walking with excitement among the dead, photographing them before they were removed. Due to Beato’s photographs, the blurry words of historians become indelible images.

In their commentary on the photographs, the authors write that the hanging photograph brings up questions like “How did the British officers decide to hang the Indian soldiers? Did they hold any trial? What were the responses of the men to their impending execution?”. They don’t offer answers, but the answers can be found in Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus which presents a dramatically different version of the war of 1857 based on never before translated letters and eye witness accounts. He argues that the official policy of Britain to suppress the insurrection was to target thousands of civilians including women and children and this policy was one of the reasons why India lost the war. Sepoys of mutinous regiments who could not give a good account of themselves were hanged. From Beato’s images we know that even some from non-mutinous regiments may also have been hanged.

Two important photographs taken by Beato are not there in the book. One shows the Lal Bagh, the place in which General James Neill was shot and the other, the Residency where Sir Henry Lawrence was killed. These photographs don’t depict cadavers or skeletons, but form an important point in the narrative of the war of 1857 where two war criminals met justice. As you flip through the book, you see the conquered locals of India, China and Korea among demolished buildings and their conquerors in flamboyant settings. This contrast explains the story of the East better than many thousand words.

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  1. Indian History Carnival – 47: Sabha, Mughal Miniatures, Calicut, Linnaeus Tripe, Project “Sesame” | varnam - November 19, 2011

    […] of the earliest photographers in India was Felice Beato. But before Beato, there was Linnaeus Tripe who took photographs of South India and Burma. India […]

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