Oriental Scenery: Yesterday & Today
My first acquaintance with Thomas and William Daniells, an encounter which marked my life in the years to follow, was in the 1980s when an Indian friend, Princess Naheed Mazharuddin Khan of Surat, showed me Mildred Archer’s book Early Views of India dedicated to the aquatints produced by these two artists some 200 years before.
The impact that these hand-coloured prints had upon me was profound: I was fascinated by their magical, yet startlingly realistic images of India. Not only was I intrigued by the choice of subjects, but also by the light, shade, perspective and precision which these artists brought to each of their views, which in many respects resembled photographs.
When I learned that the Daniells produced their aquatints with the help of an artistic device known as the camera obscura, I understood why, as a photographer, I was so drawn to these works. In many respects their understanding of composition appeared to anticipate photography.
I thought that it would be a unique experience to follow, almost exactly 200 years later, in the footsteps of the Daniells and visit the many sites that they visited in North and South as well as Western India and to reproduce, through my photographs, the very same views that so enchanted the Daniells.
My photographs would have to try and match as closely as possible the original perspective and to reproduce their present day likeness as faithfully as possible. My hope was that these photographs would help to refresh our knowledge of these vistas, and would serve others in the future as the Daniells’ aquatints had served me.
Using my camera, instead of the paintbrush to seek out original vantage points and atmospheric conditions, I was able to produce a remarkably close visual equivalent to the Daniells’ aquatints. One by one the aquatints divulged their secrets, but sometimes only after many days of walking along a mountain stream, carefully approaching the side of a hill or in the turn of a road. Jubilation and euphoria was my reward every time I found the exact point at which the Daniells stopped to locate their perspectives.
The photographs reveal the great precision of these artists, but they also show missing or additional elements, sometimes even voluntary mistakes. While the Daniells used the camera obscura in order to ensure correct perspectives, shadows and light conditions (thereby following the precedence of such renowned artists as Canaletto, etc.), they sometimes took liberties to enhance their compositions.
The juxtaposition of prints of the past with photographs of the present represent a precious documentation and report on the survival of India’s cultural and topographical heritage over a period of over two hundred years. This serves as a reminder of the enduring qualities of the country’s architectural and natural legacy, but also highlights the importance of preserving this heritage, and as a warning of the risks and dangers in the future if this is not done.
Dusasumade Gaut, at Benares, on the Ganges, 1789. Vol. I, Plate 16. Varanasi, Ahilyabai Ghat, 1996.
Govinda Ram Mittee’s Pagoda, Calcutta, 1787.Vol. II, Plate 5. Calcutta, Temples on Chitpore Road. 1996.
South-West view of the Fakeer’s Rock in the River Ganges, near Sultaungunge, 1790. Vol. I, Plate 10. Sultanganj, Jahangira rock, 1996.
The Great Pagoda, Tritchinopoly [II. 20], 1792.Vol. II, Plate 20. Tiruchirapalli, Rock fort, 1996.
The Rock of Tritchinopoly, taken on the River Cauvery, 1792. Vol. II, Plate 19. Tiruchirapalli, Kaveri river, 1996.
The Taje Mahel, Agra, 1789. Extra edition. Agra, river view of the Taj Mahal, 1996.
Eastern Gate of the Jummah Musjid at Delhi, 1789. Vol. I, Plate 1. Gate to the Jami mosque, Delhi, 1996.
Gate of a Mosque built by Hafiz Ramut, Pillibeat, 1789. Vol. III, Plate 10. Pilibhit, Gate to the Jami Mosque, 1996.
Verapadroog, in the Barramah’l, 1792. Vol. III, Plate 13. Virabhadra Durg Fort, 1996.
Cape Comorin, taken near Calcad, 1792. Vol. IV, Plate 1. Kalakkadu, Temple tower, 1996.