Sepia sutra

Sepia sutra

A project of the French Institute of Pondicherry aims to collect old studio portraits from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry to document the socio-cultural issues that prevailed in the 19th century. Rupinder Kaur reports

With the ongoing fad of selfie sticks and digital cameras helping one document every minute of their life with random hashtags, the future generation of researchers would not face any hassles in figuring out the socio-cultural issues of our time. But the archivists at present have to dig out documents and photographs from various sources and locations to map what the scenario was like a over a century ago.

The French Institute of Pondicherry, recently celebrated its 60th anniversary and held a one-day seminar which brought together eminent scholars engaging in discussions highlighting the researches of the IFP in the fields of Indology, Ecology and Social Sciences.

One of IFP’s ongoing projects is the collection of Tamil studio portraiture (1880-1980) where the team is collecting and documenting the productions of Tamil studio photography (glass plates, film negatives and prints) since their appearance in the Madras constituency till the introduction of mechanised developing and printing.

Ramesh Kumar, who is a photographer and the co-applicant of the project, shares that in one year they’ve collected around 6,000 hard copies of photos from various places in Tamil Nadu.

“Photography was invented in France in 1827 and arrived in India in 1840. Initially, it was accessible by elites of the society like the rajahs, zamindars, nawabs, et al. They, too, would click pictures with their own families and with their killings after hunting expeditions which was a trend back then. By late 1880’s, the studios opened up in the bazaars of Madras Presidency after which people started getting their own portraits clicked and displayed it in their homes,” he shared.

But after the arrival of mechanised process and digital photography, these studios eventually disappeared. “It is very important to take note of the socio-economic situations that prevailed. I have one group picture with 18 people in it and there is a lady in front, who looks around 20-25 years of age, but is actually dead because her eyes are closed and there is a garland around her neck. Back then, they also believed that if you click an alive person’s picture, that person would die. But, of course, that no longer applies now since everyone is clicking selfies. We knew of all these stories but there was no evidence. Now with the help of these photos, we can understand the trends of the past,” Kumar elaborated.

Changes in societies can be documented by carefully studying these photos, many of which were purchased from different antique shops.

“In the beginning, we noticed that the male members always sat on chairs and the women would stand next to them, but later one can note that the women were seated while the male members would stand. In few photos, you’ll see them sitting next to each other. So we have documented the changes by creating a collection and we can also perform many studies on the basis of these observations,” he said.

The project, which is headed by  Zoe Headley and funded by the British Library, would also help trace the social history of the diffusion of photography studios in Tamil Nadu and document the successive technical constraints and innovation. A much larger digital archive will be made available for consultation online in 2018.


“The British Library is helping us upload the pictures on their website but we need to preserve the hard copies too. The project has been going on for one year and we are applying for two more years. We also held an exhibition of the portraits in Pondicherry,” Kumar told us.



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