The CASA Documentation Centre

"a system of collective memory, projecting an image of the nation"
Ashim Ghosh


Photography is one of the most powerful visual media, that continues to affect and influence our lives on a global scale. The exciting possibilities of this instant and creative technology, has gained, through the years, an immense following on the subcontinent and its magic has entwined itself to our lives. From carefully preserved faded pieces of bromide, be they album remnants of past grandeur, coy memories of youth or images of relatives overseas, to newspaper and magazine visuals, election posters, snap shot/QSS images and the new visual Identity Cards, the Photograph today has evolved over time into an internalised part of our everyday lives. It is in the chronicle of these Photographic documents that a vast amount of Historical and Sociological information is cached. This has been the inspiration behind the efforts of The CASA Documentation Centre. To source, collect and preserve for posterity, photographs which reveal the variegated experiences and memories of this immensely varied nation.

In 1995 I suggested to Madan Gopal Singh, that we develop a proposal for constructing a huge photographic exposition to mark 50 years of India's post-independence experience. The plan was to represent the multitudininous sociocultural voices, with photographic images from all 4 corners of India. Community, Landscape, Politics, Architecture, News, etc. Needless to say, a massive research structure/plan was envisaged, sourcing and collecting images from all over India. Despite several efforts and proposals even though the exposition did not happen, the National Television Network, Doordarshan, showed an interest. From the intitial grand vision of a 20 episode series, we were finally commissioned a 3 - part documentary entitled Post Midnight Hour - celebrating the Indian Photograph. However the excitement of our initial vision, to represent as many voices as possible in our project remained the primary motivating factor, and it gave rise to another memorable landmark in my life's journeys - Project Unearth.

Amiya Kumar and I set off in my 800 cc Maruti Suzuki, in July 1997, armed with camera gear, strobe lights and a long list of appointments with Photographers, Studios and Collectors all over India. We were to clock 9948kms over 50 days, and simultaneously collect or document over a 1000 selected photographs from 77 locations around the country - cities, small towns, villages... Through these efforts we were able to establish a highly fruitful chain of creative links - between a cross-section of studios, from the largest to the smallest ; between the abstract and the tangible dynamism of the Indian life across space and time; between the celebrated photographers on the Indian marquee and the completely unknown ones in the remote corners of the Indian bazaars.

During my travels under the aegis of Project Unearth, I also set up appointments to videograph 33 persons in 7 different locations around India. We travelled as a skeletal crew and shot for 17 days continuously, interviewing photographers, collectors, studio owners and experts while documenting lots of photographic images on video. This led to the third register that I would like to present here - the audiovisual images of insights, experiences, memory and recollection that were documented and exposed with these video interviews.

During the making of Post Midnight Hour we availed of the opportunity to gaze upon a huge expanse of photographic works - of Photographers whose images documented historic political landmarks - Homai Vyarawala, T.S.Satyen, Raghu Rai,... created important social documentation - Jyoti Bhatt, T.S.Nagarajan, Sheba Chhachhi,... or represented the contemporary voice - Sheena Sippy, Dayanita Singh, Ram Rahman,... These are but a few of the impressive host of diverse voices and perceptions. However, a bulk of the collection was from photo studios, some images dating back to the 1890's. The experience, especially that with the photo studios, was once again amazing. Especially since both the photographs and the journey undertaken to collect them, took us on a magical mystery tour through cities, small towns, villages and remote tribal areas. With such a treasury of photographic images and video tapes, the concept of a documentation centre seemed to be rather appropriate. What started out as FOCI - Forum of Cultural Interaction - was renamed more recently to The CASA (Centre for Audiovisionary Science and Art) Documentation Centre.

In the meelting pot that is India, there co-exists multiple linguistic groups, cultures, social groups and religions. This diversity is clearly reflected in the images archived at The CASADC, presenting hordes of voices and perspectives, distinctly different fron each other by virtue of location, socio-religious/historical background, class, gender, etc. Yet when photographic images, however disparate, are seen as a chronicle of an era in a diverse photo archive, there do emerge commonalties of largely temporal nature, reflecting the parameters and fashions of the times. In this context the notion of collective memory of images recalling a unified experience, takes on a new form. The common threads however are more virtual than real - similar perhaps in the act of aspiration, but clearly different in the playing out of a script. They constantly change context and meaning depending upon the perspectives of the gaze and the individual memories associated with it. Simultaneously, the desire and fantasy of the subject's staging of himself/herself for the camera, superimposed with the Photographers' own technical/creative inputs, brings to the final image a whole new set of parameters. ...And in family album collections, islands of collective memories take on another narrative of ageing faces, changing hair styles and technologies over a clear span of time. Each of these album collections is like a mini archive, bringing together in its pages, photographs of distant relatives, faded childhoods and ageing. Each page triggering off a flurry of memories, anecdotes perceptions and fragrances, possibly unique to each viewer...

The myriad image of the nation thus preserved and presented in an archives with a multiple focus is both exciting and confusing at the same time. The photograph being a meeting place for aspects of both reality and virtuality, can collectively give rise to many contradictory messages, weaving a vibrant tapestry of numerous cultures, perspectives and desires. This more or less reveals the impossibility of any simple collective memory in the mind-boggling melange of India...

We first struck gold with P.Y.Bapat's collection in Ajmer, Rajasthan. What a priceless collection of memories, with studio photographs from the 1890's, of a Maharashtrian family from Pune who had migrated to Ajmer - a journey of almost a 1,000kms. Beautiful images preserving many tales and associations, journeys of a diaspora within a nation and the slow amalgamation across cultures. The images were clearly of affluence, in a time where the camera was largely available to restricted social groups, especially for private photo sessions or elaborate studio portraiture. The photographs raised several questions. The family was carefully arranged around a central figure. Was he the patriarchal head? Why are the men/boys and their head gear symmetrically placed? Why not the women?. The men and boys in dhotis, waist-coats, coats and all heads covered by caps. How come the women's heads were uncovered? The two boys on either side of the central figure - why were their caps more ornate? Were they the patriarch's sons? One boy, clearly up with the fashions, toting a watch chain, riding boots and riding crop. The heir apparent? The women and girl, all heavily bejewelled and heads uncovered. Were they 3 generations? What was their relationship?...

In Pune, courtesy Aalochana, I documented another brilliant collection belonging to the famous educationist Gangubai Patwardhan. These photographs recorded historic events like the first Women's Training Institutes and the first batch of Girl Guides in India. One picture dating back to 1904 was of a group of 14 women in the Hingne Mahila Ashram. Each woman is holding up a sample of her sewing work, with some more on display, hanging from a line behind. They are dressed uniformly in dark sarees and white blouses, except for one dressed only in white. How come? The woman holding knitting needles, sitting aloof on a chair.. a teacher? Was the girl sitting a little away from the group, at the feet of the teacher, a favourite? Or was the girl sitting on the sewing machine the privileged one? Only one girl has her head covered... Is it her religion, her class or her social group insistence?

This photograph marks the other important function of the studio Photographer - arranging and taking the outdoor group photo, an image of which multiple copies were supplied to several solicitors, each photograph the same, yet encapsulating different memories and associations for different people. The presence of multiple copies of the same group photo, are a facade of seemingly similar bricks in the nation image. Here the experiences of Mrs. Narang, whom I interviewed in New Delhi, are very interesting. In the 1950's her husband and she ran a small studio in Dabwali Mandi, a village in Punjab. Mrs. Narang used to handle all the dark room work. She still prides herself on the fact that she could process 10 films at a time and print 200 to 300 copies at one sitting. However, she rarely emerged from the darkroom to the front counter, since that wasn't socially acceptable at the time. How wonderfully the silver halide reactions in Mrs. Narang's darkroom brought to light the unwritten marginalisations within the construction and development of the nation image.

The other imposition of values on the photographic bromide was highlighted in the superb works of D.S.Gulvadi in Shimoga. Fantastic studio family portraits of the 1940's-70's, shot with an unerring eye for composition and symmetry. The woman in the centre of the photograph is a fascinating point of interest. Looks like she has been dragged in to this photo session, judging from the hurriedly draped chunni slipping off her head and barely covering her petticoat. Is there a reluctance in her presence here? The photo session over, the print having been produced, the Photographer now proceeds to expertly paint a cover over her head in a return to propriety, and drape an ornately decorated saree over the unacceptably visible petticoat. Was this done in order to re-photograph and present the hurriedly clad woman into a magically transformed and properly clad icon? Was this exercise a ploy to photograph the woman's face and body, and after the required interventions, present her as an acceptable bridal proposition? Hence the reluctance?...

And the countless images of arranged marriage proposals! Clear threads of collective memory. For over a century, eligible persons, across many sections of society have been presented to studio photographers to be transformed into images bearing symbols of the then prevalent gender stereotypes. Men had to be portrayed as uniformly rugged, masculine, handsome and looking positively to the future. Women - coy, fair, with unblemished skin, long hair and classic beauty. Needless to say both lists varied depending on the customers' demands and the expectations of the times. The photographer, who also doubled as a transformation artist, would painstakingly employ props, lighting, touching up and colour toning/painting to ensure that the final result was perfect and beautiful. In fact Trivedi Studio in Patna had a formidable reputation through the 60's and 70's, which still holds to some extent today, of guaranteeing an acceptance of marriage proposals, if the eligible person were to be photographed there! Once the proposal photograph was sent to the concerned family, so much discussion, analyses and fantasy would ensue. In fact tales of love-at-first-sight-of- photograph were not uncommon. Just one image of a stranger would give rise to numerous perspectives and associations, ranging from love and secret desire to rejection or regret.

This artistry of the studio photographer was very attractive in many different ways to customers, for the purposes of image making. Old age, marks and blemishes disappeared, hand colouring brought shimmering vibrance to the grey tones of B&W, props, backgrounds and doubling allowed a fantasy element aligned with many aspirations... In an instant one could be driving a huge American car (albiet a cut-out) or be shown as a devout devotee offering his head to the Mother Goddess. The creative possibility was immense and was explored endlessly, both by the subject and the photographer. For, the beautiful myth of the studio portrait is part of a preferred memory of self-representation and the image one wants to retain may just be for one's self or for everyone else. The essential question being - How do I want to be remembered??

The collection of hand-coloured images in the archives, largely from the 60's and 70's, are a great tribute to the visual spectre of this multi-culture. They were a sought after form of photo-art, which allowed a huge realm of fantasies to emerge. The two photographs from Raj Studio, Kothagudem are of the sisters of the studio owner with their respective husbands. The brighter image is coloured over with oil paint and was created in 1978. In the duller image, colour toning was used and was created 10 years later in 1988!

In the seventies another phenomenon became apparent. Inspired by global social revolutions and change, the nuclear family emerged as an assertive force. A result of this was that the joint family photograph almost disappeared, with couples and individuals forming the bulk of the clientele. This is seen in the work of Mhd. Umar Ali, Bombay studio, Hyderabad. The artistic superimposition of images, offered symbols of irreverence, as did pictures of western dressing. The three women dressed in sarees who then had themselves re-photographed in jeans and cowboy hats, is such a series so insightful of the times.

The coming of colour technology and complex chemical processes in the 70's gave rise to several limitations in comparison to the simpler and more controllable B&W. At the inception of these new technologies, there emerged new and humourous forms of the photographic bromide. Raj Malhotra of Madanjee & Co., New Delhi remembers a photo studio signboard which offered the bizzare possibility of processes still unmastered, " Colour photo of your own choice. Red, Blue, Green, Yellow...!" The explanation was, that whatever colours emerged in the process of producing the photograph, the studio owner would declare them as tones specially devised for the customer! Another studio would explain the erratic and strange colour of the prints by the lack of sunshine that day!

By the mid-eighties QSS technology made inexpensive and sort-of-standardised colour prints available, which by the 90's was rampant. Travelling through remote tribal Andhra Pradesh, I came across spectacular samples of colour QSS prints shot in tiny village studios. The films sent to Vizag, the nearest big town, for developing and printing, returned in 3 - 4 days. Many of the post-card size colour photos showed off best clothes, whose deep folds spoke of months of storage. The photographic act, evidently still a special event. Something to dress up for. What were the differences between the women dressed in tribal style and those wearing salwar kameez? Religious conversion, class? And what do the backdrops of fantastic naturescapes suggest? And brightly coloured plastic flowers as props , in vases or proffered to the camera by the subject, as nature's offering? Clearly a relationship with nature was being intuitively reinforced. Even in the outdoor photos, where the technology of a small hydel project was the chosen background, the overwhelming presence of turbulent water was iconic of nature... Here the QSS technology revolution has made possible a representation once marginalised.

A confluence of photographic fragments culled from many different locations and perspectives, offers a most insightful view of the impossibility of any central collective memory other than as a superficial social agreement handed down over time, in a nation such as India. It is this very diversity and representation of the many voices in a photo archive which allows the image of this nation to be created by the weaving of many collective threads, each important and vibrant, and not marginalised or ignored by any mainstream insistence.

The Photograph arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the 1840's, a few years after it's invention in France. To even consider the mammoth task of documenting and archiving the century and a half of photo-history in India is a tremendous challenge. The CASA Documentation Centre, within human limits, hopes to create a responsible, unbiased and ever-growing archives in an effort to preserve with sensitivity and awareness, a system of collective memories for us all.

A system of collective memory, projecting an image of the nation : The CASA Documentation Centre