Architectural Photography in Colonial India

Jump to Image Gallery

The study of Indian architecture had begun in the early to mid-1800s, initiated by independent British explorers, military personnel, and amateur photographers, and eventually taken up by the British administration in India—the India Office—and professional photographers and firms. The first surveys of Indian architecture had utilized drawings and prints to record monuments, but soon after its invention photography became the preferred method of documentation. The first individual to create an extensive photographic record of Indian architecture was James Fergusson (1808–86), a Scottish merchant whose travels to Calcutta inspired his foray into architectural history. Fergusson began writing on Indian monuments as early as 1845 and published the first thorough study on the subject in 1876. Fergusson saw architecture as a decipherable text, able to provide clues to India’s past, and photography as the most accurate means of capturing that legible history for future study.

Through the efforts of Fergusson and British archaeologists, the India Office took greater responsibility for the preservation and study of monuments by forming the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861; a few of the India Office images are exhibited here. During the same decade, commercial photography firms began marketing architectural photographs that appealed more to the popular taste of tourists and Europeans at home. The photos and albums produced by India-based firms such as Bourne and Shepherd and Johnston & Hoffman increased interest in the study of Indian architecture and added to the growing corpus of images that led Fergusson to claim in 1876 that “There are now very few . . . buildings in India—of any importance at least—which have not been photographed with more or less completeness.” Even the famous firm of Francis Frith, which photographed primarily in the Middle East, published an India series in response to the rapidly growing market for Indian subjects.

Although many of these photographs can be seen primarily as records, they cannot be viewed as objective, unbiased documents. British imperialism influenced the motivations behind their creation and how they were interpreted throughout their history. The scholar Gary Sampson identifies in these photos the “paternalistic face” of the empire, which dismissed the natives as neglectful of their own history and thus legitimized British control of even India’s most ancient heritage. However, Europeans did not have a complete monopoly of photography in the country. Indians themselves formed several photographic societies, and one of the most important photographers of Indian monuments was Raja Deen Dayal (1844–1905). Dayal is represented in this exhibition by his photograph of the Buddhist temple at Sanchi, one of his most famous commissioned subjects.

It is Dayal’s work that reminds us of the artistry of these photographs: they manifest an appreciation for the majesty of the architecture, its environment, and its purpose. Often carefully composed and attentive to detail, they emphasize the complexity of their subjects and the experience of the human body in relation to the carved and constructed forms.

The photographs in this exhibition, taken between the 1860s and the 1940s by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and other photographers, are part of the Coomaraswamy archive in the Research Photographs Collection of the Department of Art and Archaeology. This exhibition was organized and designed by Eva Wash and Shari Kenfield. Introductory text and labels by Eva Wash ’11

1. John Falconer, “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography,” in India through the Lens, ed. Vidya Dehejia (Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 2000), p. 69.

2. Gary Sampson, “Lala Deen Dayal: Between Two Worlds,” in India through the Lens, p. 264.

A Selection of Images from the Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Archive