|Brij Bhushan Sharma, author of the review below, has contributed numerous
articles to the quarterly History of Photography, including Fred Bremner's Indian Years.|
"The history of photography in Victorian India is strewn with the names of
famous and talented lensmen. Among the masters of the albumen print, without
whose work no exhibition catalogue is complete, are Linnaeus Tripe, John
Murray, Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne, Deen Dayal and of course John Burke.
Surprisingly, no fulldress account of the history of photography in India
has been written despite a constant stream of well-researched essays and
exhibition catalogues over the last decade. And no critical biography of any
of the afore-mentioned figures from the heyday of the glassplate has been
published which would put the shadow figures in the context of their times.
This portrait of John Burke - and of the lesser known partner of this
elusive figure, Baker - is thus the first of a photographer of the British
Raj. Since this book for the first time brings together a large number of
photographs by the duo, it's also a discovery for one realises that at least
Burke's work transcends that of all the other five 'greats' mentioned above
in terms of its sweep, both geographically and thematically.
Tripe and Murray confined themselves solely to architectural studies. And
while the first was active within a few districts of south India and in
Burma for a short period on specific government projects, Murray the amateur
virtually shut himself up in Agra and the Taj. Beato too was on a virually
touch-and-go mission to cover the sites associated with the Indian 'Mutiny'.
Bourne and Dayal stood at the other extreme, trying to cover virtually the
whole of India in all its diversity over a number of years, losing focus in
their arduous attempt at eclecticism.
By contrast Burke worked steadily in a terrain which is still considered
hostile after nearly 150 years and of which few images exist outside the
albums of amateur army officials some of whom also tended to market them
fitfully. Bourne - the most intrepid among the photographers of Victorian
India - with his picturesquely composed and well-toned images of White Man's
Kashmir just about managed to venture on the periphery of what for Burke was
The problem with the professional Victorian photographers in British India
was that they were consciously trying to pander to the demands of the winter
visitor from Britain. Driven by a sort of elitist approach, their focus was
heavily on monuments of the past, street scenes of British-built
metropolises, princely India and its durbars, the hillstations and the
cantonments and their social whirl.
Burke was different. Here was a man of modest means, a grassroots
photographer. The importance of Burke lies in two directions. By the time
the practice of photogaphy matured into a robust art in Victorian era, the
British had almost complete control of India. The frontier provinces in the
north-west, where Burke was active, were the only region which had military
operations still being mounted and he was there to record it all, being part
of the parties bringing up the rear. Even Beato could not claim to be
photographing the war - only its (often stage-managed) aftermath. Indeed
Burke was THE photographer of the Great Game and accompanied most of the
British military campaigns though he is best known for his work relating to
the 2nd Afghan War (1878-1880), examples of which are well represented in
this delightful book.
So in a sense Burke is the only war photographer of Victorian India who left
behind a large oeuvre resulting from his missions. He is also the earliest
and most consistent photographer of the Kashmir landscape, archaeological
sites and people. The work of his contemporaries who came in from the plains
on summer jaunts does not have the same breadth nor the same empathy with
the subjects, which makes people facing the camera in Burke's images look so
natural and relaxed. For example Bourne and Deen Dayal were too 'upper
class' to dirty their knees in the process of capturing the essence of
This may have to do with Burke and Baker being Irish and Catholics, as Omar
Khan rightly surmises. In a highly stratified Raj they were members of the
lowest white caste and therefore were in proximity to the full spectrum of
local society. Their position on the periphery seems to have informed their
photographs and helps give them resonance more than a century later.
One has to be thankful to Omar Khan for not merely introducing a forgotten
great but for meticulously bringing forth his best work to the notice of the
world and putting it in the context of the turbulent history and events of
his times. And each photograph, representing a particular phase in Burke's
career, is accompanied by extensive notes and biographical and topographical
information. As a photographic record of a 19th century colonial encounter
Burke's work is unusual for its completeness."