Photography as a medium, perhaps more than any other, has the ability to transcend both digital and print media. Images can be distributed digitally via the internet and social media or encountered physically through an exhibition of reproduced prints in a public gallery. However, perhaps nothing compares emotionally to the immersive experience of discovering, holding, smelling and gazing into original print editions and albums from the historic era that they document. This is especially true when that era is a 150 years past and the photographer concerned is one of the medium’s true pioneers.
In 2017, I was approached by Malavika Anderson of the Cambridge Museums network to discuss developing this Pani, Pahar research project into exhibition form for her ‘India Unboxed’ event series. India Unboxes was a season of events to celebrate the UK-India year of culture. We were both interested in the potential of cross-referencing the towns and villages in India, where Professor Bhaskar Vira’s academic data was recorded, with the archives of the Cambridge University Library and Centre for South Asian Studies.
Bringing these two facets of Cambridge together would represent a genuine academic, research and public engagement opportunity for both the archive and contemporary research together. We were optimistic about the chance of overlap as many of the research sites in Northern India had historically been popularised as summer ‘Hill Stations’ for parched British colonists. The cooler climate and escape from the scorching plains of central India often encouraged amateur or ‘studio led’ postcard photography.
An expanded list of search keywords was developed by building on modern day Indian place names – adding in Hindi, historic names, variations, spellings changes, landmarks and also famous individuals. I then set about combing the well indexed Cambridge e-library system online. Almost immediately the searches started to generate some exciting leads especially for Nainital and Mussoorie. Nearly all of the references at the main University Library pointed to the Royal Commonwealth Society collections stretching back to beyond 1868 – close to the dawn of photography itself.
This prestigious archive of photography and documents was acquired by the University Library in 1992 and includes many historically significant documents . Its physical entries are accessible only by pre-ordering for private viewing at the University Library’s hidden Manuscript Room.
The University Library itself is an epic, almost incomprehensible repository of information within a towering slab of brick architecture. Visiting promotes the same feeling of reverence, hush, awe and calm more often associated with a gothic cathedral. However, without careful navigation the spacious corridors can quickly narrow into dark catacombs with shelves of books dominating every angle. After padding slowly down long corridors past students and tip-toeing up endless flights of stairs I arrived in quiet and modest reception area.
Upon arrival at the manuscripts room you must abandon all personal effects, except a pocket camera, notebook and pencil, thus preventing any chance of accidental permanent marks by or indeed deliberate theft. After consolidating my online catalogue numbers into the most promising ten references I submitted my retrieval request. Waiting patiently, I marvelled at the various researchers leaving carefully through Medieval Books or taking notes from unwieldy parchment documents.
Finally, an obscenely large trolley stacked high with archival grey boxes glided into the room and was parked casually next to my desk. Opening the first of these boxes at random, it took strength to lift out an utterly enormous, heavy bound photo album and lay it squarely on an enormous book cushion. My emotions were somewhere between childish Indiana Jones glee and dramatic Dan Brown discovery tension. Indeed, I hardly dared utter a breath for fear of contaminating the box once open. I shot a glance to my right subconsciously seeking permission to continue with a Librarian, who was of course completely uninterested in the personal melodrama I was enjoying.
The silence, high ceiling, calm space and soft north light of the manuscript room seemed to all disappear as I carefully opened the cover. The heavy set, impossibly bright gold embossed title of the album caught the light as the ancient spine creaked in protest. INDIA 1872.
Naively unburdened with any significant prior research or context I had unwittingly chanced upon an incredible collection of 3 albums together holding over 150 original salt prints photographed and printed by the legendary duo of Bourne and Shepherd. The the distinct smell of ancient, yellowing card caught my nose and is a trigger to that fantastic experience. Whether or not I spent 20 minutes or 3 hours on those pages I cannot say.
In what I hope shares a measure of this excitement, our project has supported the full digitisation of these albums by the University Library Digital Team. Although the only sense available here is visual, I am grateful to Maciej Pawlikowski who has professionally completed a highly detailed and faithful colour reproduction of every page. Also to Domniki Papadimitriou who has assisted with the licensing of the work to bring you this E-Library embed and the exhibition itself.