Visual Histories, Archaeological Constructs and the ‘Indian’ Pasts

PHRC Research Seminars in Cultures of Photography

Lecture by Dr Sudeshna Guha (Tagore Research Scholar, National Museum, New Delhi, India)

October 20, 2015

Beginning this year’s PHRC seminar series was Dr Sudeshna Guha with what may prove to be a seminal moment in the discussion of the relationship between archaeology and photography. The relationship between archaeological research and photography has been viewed for too long as a one-dimensional symbiosis, often under the aegis of art historical analysis or through an archaeological standard. Guha’s seminar exploded these attitudes with a level of detail and a multidisciplinary approach that should be productively emulated – especially by us PhDs!

Her explanation of the use, and sometimes abuse, of archaeological photography in India explored themes from a range of disciplines and opened the subject to a new methodological approach. Archival history, aesthetics, archaeology, the history of knowledge, even architecture was all included in her analysis. The archive played a particularly prominent role, yet Guha continually extracted more than a surface understanding of the archive’s role within the creation and manipulation of archaeological knowledge.

Guha discussed the connection between Assyrian archaeology and the aesthetics of Indian architecture, through a discussion of archaeological pieces, bound for Britain in the 1850s but displayed in Bombay en route. Like much of Guha’s presentation, this is a view that questions many traditional opinions of archaeological influence and puts photography at the heart of this re-thinking.Further, many scholars of Indian archaeology have become embedded in the colonial debates that inevitably surround the subject. Whilst Guha tackled these historiographies decisively, her multidisciplinary approach to photographic history has allowed her a freedom to go beyond these surface intersections and attain a deeper understanding of the era, and archaeology’s role within the colonialist agenda. For example; the manner by which archaeological photography was used to modify the contemporary understanding of Indian religion and identity. Through this kind of photographic history we are able to track the efforts of colonial powers to manipulate religious attitudes; efforts that had attempted to seamlessly transition Hindus to Christianity using photographs.

If all assessments of archaeological photography were conducted in such a way, I am convinced there would be a far greater understanding not only of photography and its role in shaping our history, but a great many more disciplines.

Reviewed by PHRC PhD student Duncan Shields


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