As a vast subcontinent bursting with a variety of communities, cultures and people, India is home to a whole range of different languages, dresses, traditions and art. While Partition split this once-whole nation, fragmenting it with dotted lines on a map, the glory of Hindustan as we knew it before this division is one with a far more vibrant multiplicity of colours and cultures. The new generation of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis might not be privy to this holistic, historically shared diversity of culture, as it seems to only exist in faded pages of dusty books. And this glimpse into that past is an especially interesting one, as it comes from a colonial perspective creating categories to slot away Indians neatly.
The New York Public Library has preserved a piece of history through photographs accompanied by descriptions whose date of issue travels all the way back to the 19th century. Titled ‘The People of India’, this collection of art represents Hindustan’s races and tribes through different attires, facial features and other distinct traditional characteristics. A peek into these illustrations not only shows us the cultural divisions of undivided India, but it also portrays how these races and tribes were seen through the lens of an outsider.
In eight volumes published between 1868 and 1875, J. Forbes Watson and John William Kaye created these pictures to depict various ‘types’ of Indians through their eyes. As legend has it, this work was commissioned under the patronage of Governor General Lord Canning and his wife, because Lady Canning wanted a photo album to carry home to England. As a result, we now have a preserved colonial take on Hindustan’s people in the 19th century. And since photography is a slave to context, we also receive a glimpse into the backdrop of the makers of these volumes, and their relationship with India. For instance, the descriptions that accompany each picture show how these communities were seen through colonial eyes. The character of Kashmiri Musulmani “is not very respectable...,” whereas the women grass-cutters of Madras “are a very industrious and useful race.” These illustrations are a fascinating piece of preserved history, context and colonial prejudice towards Hindustani communities, which can be observed even today, having trickled into generations of Indian psyche. With religion, caste and more being described alongside each picture, these images come marked with rows and columns for slotting people.
Scroll on for a few photographs from The People of India by J. Forbes Watson and John William Kaye, which acts as a window into the late 19th century and the British categorization of Hindustani people.