Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Renu Savant, a filmmaker from India who visited us last year to look at our 19th and early 20th Century material on India.

Verse - Old English fers, from Latin versus ‘a turn of the plough, a furrow, a line of writing’, from vertere ‘to turn’; reinforced in Middle English by Old French vers, from Latin versus.

Reverse - Middle English: from Old French revers, reverse (nouns), reverser (verb), from Latin reversus ‘turned back’, past participle of revertere, from re- ‘back’ + vertere ‘to turn’.


Ethnographical filmmaking has its origins in the colonial discourse. As someone who makes films situated in the intersection of cultural research and art practice, I often place myself in the lineage of an ethnographic filmmaker. In part this is performative practice, as though ‘taking on’ the role of a filmmaker, ‘from outside’, researching a culture, while at the same time being placed in a certain power relation with them.

Being a woman, allows me to put this role in relief, in that I can never occupy the position of the ‘man with the camera’ and all the social dynamics that engenders.


It was in the context of my filmmaking practice that I sought to look at the early visual culture material showing India, in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. In terms of an affect, the performance of this journey to the Museum was that of a reverse journey. Completing a full circle of 117 years, when the first stereocards on India were produced by British companies, I was the visited going to the visitor. If one can journey in the opposite direction, one finds that the opposition has been laid down before one ever thought of the journey in the first place.


At the Bill Douglas Museum, I got to see some very valuable visual resources on colonial India. Among these were sets of stereocards produced in India, around 1901. Accompanied by an old wooden stereoscope, viewing these cards formed an important part of my research (performance). In part this was because I could study the actual framing and the visual affect of ‘India’ that was sought to be created among the British audiences of that time. But also because the viewing of the stereocards through the stereoscope engendered a tactility, an ‘act’ of viewing, which was an important part of the performative ritual and thus my enterprise, which was laid down as ‘reversing the journey’ in order to look for images on India, thus re-writing them. I sought to intervene in some of the texts accompanying the stereocards. Fiction is a strategy to the extent that one can situate oneself in duration in fiction, rather than a particular place or time. The actual experience of “looking at” realistic scenes from India through these stereocards, was a strangely narrativised one for me.


The set of stereocards on India, produced by Sunbeam Tours, claims at the outset that it is for the “traveller in India”. “Our purpose here is to give the Sunbeam Tourist, a general idea of the country….” The cards are a set of stereoscopic images of India, sold for mass audience consumption in 1901. These sets, usually sold in a packet of stereoscopic photographs of a place, were supposed to create the experience of having “seen” the place and its culture. The stereocard sets, which I looked at, specifically on India were produced by companies like, “Sunbeam Tours”, “Realistic Travels – Publishers” and “The Fine Art Photographers Publishing Co.”, around the year 1900. I intervene with my impressions (in italics) of what I was seeing juxtaposed with the commentary that the British purchasers of the cards received:


Note 1:

India 6 - Preparing Bombay Duck:

“I put the stereoscope to my eyes, the cold of Exeter seeping through my jeans into my legs. The 3D image refuses to come into focus, I shift my position in the chair unconsciously, as if that would shift the image into focus.


As I slide into my own memories of sunny Mumbai, of Versova, the people who speak my language, while they hang out the fish to dry, who dress only slightly differently now, the elusive image from the stereoscope perched on my nose, comes to me – I can see it, in 3D! – the scene before my eyes taken 117 years ago – a row of women posing for the still camera, all the girls who look like us, when me and my sisters stood dressed up – the women looking smilingly into the camera seems so close both to my eyes and my mind…


Her face is quite similar to mine and her smile too, I think. She smiles like the Marathi woman that I am. The 3D world in the image – the rows of stick fences to dry out the fish, the spread of dry bombil fish in the left foreground, but most of all the sky, the sunlit sky of Bombay, which I know so well, rather different to the sky of Exeter….


The women look highly amused at the photographer as they look at me now, one trying to hold her naked daughter steady, looking smilingly into the camera, as if to tease the cameraman with her nakedness.” 


The original text, accompanying this photograph states:

“Many people looking at this picture and reading its title will conclude that a mistake has been made. Bombay Duck is, however, not a bird but an eel-like fish, which, after being caught and dried, is ground into powder, and used as an ingredient for making curry. The staple industry of Varsova – the village we are now in – is the catching and curing of these fish. The woman rather prominent in the picture would persist in having the not over-dressed chota lurkee (little girl) well in the picture every time a photograph was taken.


The Versova in this small scene is frozen in its description, but the Versova I know in my city, is alive and changing.


The production of early actuality images on India (and other countries, which were part of the British Empire) find their sources in ideas of travel, tourism, and exploration expeditions. The early documentary films among other things, aimed to bring to their European audiences, according to a film publicity brochure, “the world’s events in their natural colours.” A pride in the empire for the British population, is a common theme running through the material. However, this does not in any way disguise the fact that that they were commercial enterprises and were exhibited as entertainment. The use of images as ethnographic data develops a little more slowly but definitely, and later bringing along with it, the debates about the representative potential of photographic images, within academic disciplines. But even ethnographic expeditions, which were filmed and exhibited for the general public, were always accompanied by narrations of the trip, so that the whole programme was marketed as instructive entertainment.”


Note 2:

India - 17 An Opium Shop:

The camera is inside the shop shooting the opium seller, who is so neatly posed in his role, that it is the British officer standing, looking into the shop, quite in the field of focus, (surrounded by children gaping at the whole ceremony), which becomes the main subject of this photo. It is the gaze of the British officer who is intently focused on the opium box held up by the seller. It is his gaze, which holds the tension in this photo intact.


The text accompanying the cards states:

“Throughout British Territory in India the cultivation of the poppy is prohibited, except in one or two prescribed areas where it is grown under strict supervision. Opium smoking is not practiced in India to any degree, but the drug is eaten and, as in smoking, the habit, once formed, is not easily broken off. Opium is sold under licence, certain shops being given permission to sell. This is one of them.”


India 20 - The Postman

In many of these photos it is the stark curiosity of the bystanders, looking at the photo being taken, often looking straight into the camera,   creates a strange living alchemy in the photograph. By not being fixed into a pose, their gaze and their focus on the act of taking the photograph often creates something alive and fluid in the continuing time. It gives rise to the experience of a living duration for me.


In this photo, the woman, who is described as a ‘coolie-woman’ standing half in, half out of the photo, posed straight, rigidly, forms this presence. Ignored by the photographer, even as he asks her to stand in the frame, he keeps her out of focus and not very exposed. She remains unclear even when viewed through the stereoscope. I wonder what kind of fears her enigmatic but rigidly posed presence could have spoken of.


 The text accompanying the card states:

“The native postman is here seen delivering the mail to an English officer. In the background at a respectful distance is a Coolie woman who is employed to carry the parcels: this she does in a bag which is poised on her head, and here the end of the round has almost been reached as the bag is apparently empty.”


Note 3:

India 11 - Lepers


Looking unwelcomingly and resistantly insolent, a young boy among the leprosy colony residents, looks back at me. As do the other members who stand well inside the gate of their colony-prisons. They have been summoned for the photo and made to stand in place, but will not do so easily or willingly, as the hateful gaze of the young boy says. So angrily is he staring at me after so many years now, I squirm, do I feel a kinship with him against the British photographer, or as a split second of self-doubt engenders a complicity, inside me? Outside, seen through the glass walls of the museum library, another world goes past. I take my own time and turn to look into the stereoscope again.


The text accompanying the card reads:

“A Leper Asylum is not an attractive place in which to find oneself, even as a visitor, but we wandered into this one day to obtain a photograph, and arrived just as the patients were receiving their dressing lotions, The dispenser puts the bottles out on the steps, and the patients fetch them; one of their number, who as yet has not reached an advanced stage of the disease, binds up the parts affected where this is necessary, but as can be seen, most of them are without bandages, although hands and feet are in a shocking condition. It is merciful that the dread disease does not entail suffering, and some of the patients in this group seemed quite merry and bright. Bottles etc, referred to above, are seen on the steps.”


At the museum, I also examined the textual narratives that had accompanied shows of dioramas, magic lantern shows and film publicity brochures on India.


The book, Route of the Overland Mail to India, is a verbal commentary written for diorama paintings on the stops that the Overland mail to India took on the way. The title page (see featured image) says that the book, “Historical, Descriptive and Legendary” is by John Tillotson, Esq. and the introduction captures the history of the Indian subcontinent from the ancient times to the present (late 1800s) in two pages, ending with the lines, “And now that the storm (referring to the War of Independence 1857) is over, that our Indian empire is established on a still firmer basis – that taught by the lesson of experience, we have grown wiser for the future, India becomes even more interesting and attractive than before. All that can be learned about it is eagerly sought, every kind of information respecting it is valuable; we want to know more about the country… so that we may ascertain the readiest means of availing ourselves of its resources, of improving the conditions of its inhabitants, and of substituting the elevating faith of the Christian for the brutalizing superstition of the Hindoo… . Our readers undertake in the pleasantest manner possible, namely sitting quietly at home – the Overland Journey to India.”


The “All Red Route Around the World” is a booklet of commentary for a set of 53 photographic magic lantern slides. Published around 1910s it starts with the line, “The “All-Red Route” is that by which the traveller may travel around the world without touching any other territory…” The traveller, visitor or any person with agency is, of course, assumed to be the European citizens and the visited, the ‘colonies’. An important point to note here is that the journey described in the booklet is still one of imagination.


 The third kind of text was that written in the film publicity brochures, two of which were of interest to me – “Through Romantic India” and “Through India with our King and Queen”. The films were made in 1922 and 1912 respectively.  


The tone of these texts brings to light the kind of narrative voice that manufactured the images of the colonized lands. Apart from what was sought to be represented and how it formed a part of the colonial discourse about the east, what I found interesting was the way in which voices of travellers and famous showmen such as Lowell Thomas (narrator of expedition films and a renowned American Journalist), shaped the language, the tone and the point of view of looking at the ‘distant’ lands. It was these narrative elements, perhaps created as much through the personal flourishes of the individual narrators as by the discourse of the time, which made the enterprise of showing images (painted or photographic images of India and other colonized nations) a popular entertainment. This tradition goes back to Victorian showmen such as Albert Smith, who created popular shows around travel.  As noted in Raymond Fitzsimons’ book, The Baron of Piccadilly – The Travels and Entertainments of Albert Smith, about the showman, “His entertainments at the Egyptian Hall were travelogues, illustrated by dioramic views and laced with comic songs and sketches. This compound of amusement and instruction was irresistible to his middle class audiences…”


About Smith’s originality, the introduction to the book says, “…he travelled for travel’s sake… Smith made no journeys of exploration but his impressions of the places he visited owed nothing to travellers who had gone before him.”


The film publicity brochure of Through Romantic India, publicizes Lowell Thomas, as the guide to the travelogue, “It is the dream of every man to be a modern Marco Polo. Your opportunity to bring that dream true has come. …”


Below, the brochure records the review, given to the show, by the Pall Mall Gazette. “Lowell Thomas as Aladdin” “The lights go down, and the curtain goes up and for one evening we leave London behind, and clutching Lowell Thomas tightly by hand, for he is the good fairy of the Arabian night, we wander at our will, ‘through Romantic India’ the India of Marco Polo and Kipling… Lowell Thomas will be remembered in his marvelous travelogue, ‘With Allenby in Palestine’ which created such a sensation in 1919-20.”


These figures, “travellers, explorers” were examples of early actuality narrators and were in effect using their imagination to construct a picture of the colonized land. Of course imagination was hence susceptible to all the repositories of stereotypes and othering it needed to impose on the colonies. But my point here is to focus on form, which is an important part of any imaginative work. Numerous accounts of trips being exhibited commercially through photographs or films, showed that they were popular entertainment of educational value. Often construction of entertaining narratives was assumed to be part of their presentation. In a sense, this was an entertainer who used ‘form’ in the imparting of information, thus making it fluid. How much of this individual narrative flourish contributed to the colonial image of India that was produced in time?


The Bill Douglas Museum collection is very eclectic and valuable. As a filmmaker I found detailed visual material on colonial India, which could be called early actuality images. I was suggested readings by Dr Wickham at various stages of my research, which took many byways, not planned earlier. My research at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum was to study the politics of form of this early cinema material on India, to intervene by performing a journey and recording my impressions – a sort of re-versing. 


Being a filmmaker, I am part of this tradition of formulating narratives on contemporary India. As I mentioned in the beginning while working on documentation films in my ancestral village of Mirya in western coastal India, I take on the role of the ethnographic filmmaker. In this desire to play with roles, I willfully operate in and out of the historical frameworks and forms of narration, thus asserting a fluid femininity within a patriarchal discourse of visually coding culture.

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