An impressive collection of photographs of India, dating more than a century ago, have been discovered in a shoebox in an Edinburgh institute, London. However, identity of the photographer is a mystery.
The rare and fragile glass plate negatives, which date back to around 1912, show life on the subcontinent at the high point of the British Raj and mostly detail life in Kolkata, which was a major commercial hub.
The plate-glass negatives were found by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland in Edinburgh.
“The 178 negatives were found in a shoebox for a pair of grey, size 9, Peter Lord slip-on shoes, and were stored in their original five-by-eight-inch plate boxes,” the commission said. The negatives had been wrapped in copies of the Statesman newspaper dating from 1914.
“As the negatives were still wrapped in newspapers from 1914, it is possible that they were transported back to Britain from India at this time, and have remained unopened until now,” the commission said.
However, the commission does not have any details about the provenance of the rare photographs. “Among the theories are that the photographer was a British civil servant headquartered in Kolkata, or was connected to the jute trade, as many Scots were at the time.,” the commission said.
“We don’t know for sure how the negatives came to be in our collection. We receive archive material from countless different sources, from architectural practices to generous donations from the public, and sometimes take large amounts of material in at once, and often documentation for historical deposits does not exist,” RCAHMS architectural historian Clare Sorensen said.
“Over time all this new material will be inspected and catalogued as part of our collection and then made available to the public. It’s fantastic that a small shoe-box contained such a treasure-trove of photographic imagery, but in some ways it’s not unusual. Our experience as an archive has shown us that some of the most interesting discoveries can be made in the most unlikely of places,” she added.
The commission approached John Falconer, curator of photographs at the British Library, who correctly identified some of the locations.
The 178-photograph collection includes images detailing celebrations for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Calcutta in 1912, the only visit by a British monarch to India as Emperor of the subcontinent. The photographs show Kolkata’s buildings lit up at night in tribute. The collection also includes photographs of ships arriving at the Chandpal Ghat, the main landing place for visitors to Kolkata along the Hooghly river; and pilgrims gathered for a religious festival on the Maidan in the centre of Kolkata.
The collection also includes photographs of Britons playing tennis and socialising as part of their day-to-day lives in India in the early 20th century. The photograph collection can be viewed online at (http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/304615/digital_images/india+general…).
- Mamata gags the Dodhichi newsletter (indologygoa.wordpress.com)