Albert Kahn: Journeys to India again

Updated: Sep 25, 2014, 17:40 PM IST

Akrita Reyar A wealth of picture prints of India of yore were on display in Delhi and will soon travel to Mumbai, courtesy the philanthropy and far-sightedness of the French businessman Albert Kahn. Exactly a hundred years ago, in 1909, this rich French banker thought of the concept of globalization long before it came into vogue. He set up a unique venture to capture the images of the world in colour pictures using the then newly developed technique of autochromes and called it the ‘Archives of the Planet’. In his campaign, he met likeminded people like Rabindranath Tagore and Henri Bergson with whom he set up the ‘Around the World Society’ for promoting peace and cross-cultural exchange.

While these exotic relics of the past were forgotten for a long time, it was only in the 1980s that 72,000 prints were discovered, catalogued and displayed in a museum in his hometown Boulogne. The India episode of these photographs has been brought back, for us to delight in, under the title ‘Albert Kahn: Journeys to India’, as a part of the Bonjour India festival. Seeing the exhibition is like watching India through a kaleidoscope of vibrant images of a fading past. Each of these autochromes speaks a thousand words and reveals more about pre-Independence India, than any verbose tome would. The stills bring to life a slice of our history through a canvas so endearing and about times so charming, that one is lured to easily slip back into the era bygone. There is a quiet elegance in the images that stare back at us. They converse with us about an age of elaborate traditional dressing, thoughtful moments, opulence of royalty, and ruggedness of the rural hinterland. Of the 50 photographers that Kahn sent on the globe trotting mission, it is the works of Stephane Passet and Roger Dumas that are on display. Notably, this was the first time that India was captured through the coloured lens. All the works on show are divided into three categories. The first contains pictures of Tagore and his family, as well as some general pictures of Mumbai. The second deals with ethnic architecture and city and rural vistas, as well as people dressed in typical attires. And the final category deals with the Maharajas of India. So you have Rabindranath Tagore enjoying the hospitality of Kahn in his multi-cultural rose garden in Boulogne, the only place according to him that “felt like home”. The image of Tagore in the colourful environ appears surreally calm to such an extent that he seems like a statue of a medieval god. There are also some never before seen pictures of the Nobel laureate with his family.

There is an interesting screen of a regular Mumbai bus stand. Amusingly enough, while one person is visible, only the shoes of the other two persons can be seen and not their bodies. No, it is not some ghost vanishing act; it was simply that the technique used was so nascent that both the subject and the cameraman had to be absolutely still, otherwise the picture would simply disappear! The photographers would often sing themselves a jingle just to keep the rhythm steady, as the tripod was created only a decade later. Both Dumas and Passet took care not to take snaps of any Victorian buildings or British edifices, as the idea was to capture the essence of India and not the colonial impact. That is the reason that there is an eclectic collection of people, temple engravings, pillars, courtyards, mosques and of course the unmissable Taj Mahal. As mentioned earlier, because the person whose picture was being clicked had to stand still and look at the cameraman for a considerable duration, it can be noticed that most women have preferred to use some sort of a veil, especially the poorer class. The rare picture assortment also gives a peek into the grandiose of the Maharajas and their palaces, especially the Maharaja of Kapurthala Jagatjit Singh, who was himself very influenced by French art. Most photographs were taken using potato starch as filters and the heavy camera equipment was carried in specifically designed Louis Vuitton trunks. These suitcases became so fashionable that the royal households of India ordered for these to be tailor-made for them. Some of these century-old portmanteaus are also being exhibited alongside the pictures. Unfortunately enough, the stock market crash in 1929 left Albert Kahn bankrupt and his ‘Archives of the World’ venture had to be abandoned in 1931. Things got worse as the Germans invaded France and Kahn got targetted, mainly because he was a Jew. Only his estate at Boulogne was left intact, but the rest of his property was destroyed. During this period, Kahn died in a road accident. While the life of this large-hearted patron was cut short abruptly, Albert Kahn left behind a legacy of a unique historical record of the world by way of thousands of photographs and 1,83,000 meters of film that he commissioned and financed. For us in India, he has immortalized an epoch, which we would have never been able to imagine so lucidly had it not been for these stunning portrayals being encapsulated in coloured frames. (Watch Video) (To be on display in NGMA, Mumbai from January 7-28)

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