For a journalist, it’s hard not to think of Sri Lanka as an island country recovering from a decades-long conflict. But, there is a country that far predates this bloodletting and warfare. It’s called Ceylon, Sri Lanka’s colonial “other”.
What was it like living in Ceylon? How did it look? What about its people? What kind of clothes did they wear? What did they do at work? What was God to them?
These questions and the complications that arise from them are part of the exhibition at India’s National Museum, “Imaging the Isle Across – Vintage Photography from Ceylon.” It is a bewildering depiction of an island that witnessed dramatic changes to its landscape under European colonists.
The exhibition of original photographic prints from the late-19th and early-20th centuries opened in New Delhi on Sept. 26. The photographs were shot by travellers drawn to Ceylon because of its natural beauty and strategic position in the Indian Ocean.
While the exhibition offers an idyllic view of colonial Sri Lanka, with its palm trees, fishing boats, vast plantation fields, hills and waterfalls, it’s also a pointed critique of the Europeans’ perception of their “subjects”. Therefore, interpretations of exoticism, gender and social stereotyping are easy to arrive at.
“An exoticism is also like an inscription of fantasy, and in a sense photography should at least make you look at that image and think about what is possible outside that frame. Looking at these images is also looking beyond these images,” said curator Rahaab Allana, who works for the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. The exhibition is sourced from the foundation’s archive.
The 120 images, more or less, reveal more than they capture. In portraying the body of a labourer, an unknown worker acquires a larger-than-life, heroic character that would otherwise be impossible in real life. Wearing a loin cloth and posing inside a studio, the man’s image can also be read as a tool to subvert class distinctions of that time.
Many local people, some of them belonging to the lower class of the Ceylonese society, ended up as models for photographers. They appear subjugated, and yet there is a sense of impenetrability about them – an aspect that seems to be beyond the scope of the colonial conqueror or the photographer. In pictures of bare-chested lower-caste Rodiya women, for example, we can read criticism of the social structure of the day that disallowed them “the right to wear an upper garment”.
Juxtaposed with images of peasants, coconut pickers, tribals and labourers is an aristocratic and bourgeois side of Ceylon. The colonial elite are also photographed in the collection. In effect, what we see is a composite, yet cosmopolitan, Sri Lanka.
The detachment and anonymity with which the local people model for the camera, a new arrival in 19th-century Ceylon, is conspicuous to the extent that there is rarely a candid moment captured in the show.
Beyond the so-called silence of these portraits is the parallel narrative of social turbulence, a revolt against colonialism that was born in the city of Kandy in 1848. The rebellion later spread to Colombo, gripping the entire island. The show does not represent these developments.
The British rule in Ceylon began in 1815, which was preceded by the invasion of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes and the French. Being a “repository of oriental wealth”, Ceylon became a heavily industrialized and booming plantation economy in the 19th century. The nation got independence in 1948.
Colonial commerce in Ceylon brought slavery, and destruction of habitats and environment, a transformation recorded in the exhibition. A photo, shot in the 1880s, shows a coffee estate in Lindula surrounded by demolished trees. Another photo from the same period has Brownlow’s hills dotted with what looks like offices of a coffee estate.
From the modernisation of Ceylon, the show moves onto the eerie quietude of its magnificent, but deserted, ancient sites. These archaeological structures were reclaimed from wilderness and transformed into orderly sites, a departure from images showing dense jungles being cleared for industrial purposes.
Being a predominantly Buddhist country, no discussion on Sri Lanka is complete without its monks, temples and pagodas, even though the island is also home to many minorities. One of the most prominent images from the collection is a blown-up photograph showing a group of Burmese monks worshipping at the Kandy Temple. Folding their hands in devotion, they are seen converging around their most venerated symbol – a tooth, a relic of the Buddha.
Viewed together, these images defy a one-dimensional understanding of Sri Lanka’s colonial history, but the romantic nostalgia that they evoke pleases the eye far more than inviting criticism.
The exhibition is on view until Nov. 10 at the National Museum in New Delhi. The gallery is closed on Mondays.