February issue 2009

By | Art | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

In 1913, a French photographer Stéphane Passet was sent to India by a project, Archive of the Planet, initiated by the French financier, philanthropist and humanist, Albert Kahn, to photograph images of social, political and cultural import across the world. Fifteen years later, the Archive sent a second photographer, Roger Dumas (1891-1972), to India. Whereas Passet had focused on daily life from Mumbai and Ahmedabad to Delhi, Jaipur, Lahore and Peshawar, Dumas was invited to photograph Indian princes. In particular, he filmed and photographed the fabled Golden Jubilee of the Francophile Maharajah Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala (1872-1949) which was attended by a galaxy of princes, including the rulers of Alwar, Bikaner, Loharu and Malerkotla.

The most remarkable aspect of Passet’s and Dumas’ photographs is that many of them are in colour: they were recorded on glass plates by the autochrome process, invented in 1907 by the Lumiere brothers, which ‘was the first industrial process for true colour photography … and revolutionised photographic practice.’ The Albert Kahn Museum’s collection of 72,000 autochromes is the world’s largest: it includes 1,200 autochromes of India, taken by Passet and Dumas.

These stunning autochrome images, which I saw in the summer, are on display from June 2008 to March 2009, at an exhibition Infinitely India at the Albert Kahn Museum in Boulogne Boulaincourt, just outside Paris. They challenge the common perception that pre-and post-World War I photography was only in black and white. Of course there were excellent black and white photographs on display, but the most memorable were autochromes: their colour, clarity and composition captured wonderfully the many hues of a bygone era.

The photographs were on two levels, linked by a ramp. Some exhibits were accompanied by a short archival film, which included Rabindranath Tagore walking towards the camera, amid a shower of flowers in Albert Kahn’s spectacular garden. Kahn greatly admired Tagore and invited him on several occasions. Kahn had also set up an organisation called Société Autour du Monde (Round the World) where the museum now stands. His aim was to promote peace through cultural exchange. His many guests included Maulana Mohammed Ali, who was among the leading Indian dignitaries of the day that Albert Kahn had asked to sit for a portrait.

Maulana Mohammed Ali’s photograph is displayed along with that of Kahn’s other Indian friends and acquaintances in an area marked as “a prelude” to the main exhibition and recreated to resemble Albert Kahn’s sitting room: Maulana Mohammed Ali and a delegation of Indian Muslims had come to call on Kahn to explain the Khilafat cause.

The exhibition included many photographs of street life from Agra to Peshawar, of water carriers, flower sellers and bullock carts, and women draped in saris or in flowing skirts; there were images of temples and mosques, shrines and holy men. Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and the many religions of India were all represented here. The clear lines of magnificent Mughal monuments emerged in marked contrast, as did the East-West mingling in the edifice or the interiors of grand Indian palaces such as Rampur and Udaipur and, in particular, Kapurthala: Maharajah Jagatjit Singh, who admired Victor Hugo and spent a great deal of time in France, was well-known to Albert Kahn. The maharajah also invited two French architects to build his palace, inspired by Versailles and the Tuileries. His jewellery, too, was designed by French jewellers, including Cartier.

At the exhibition there were two films running concurrently in adjoining rooms. One consisted of a rare 15-minute footage captured by Dumas of the Golden Jubilee of Jagatjit Singh, an extravaganza that was spread over two weeks from November 22 to December 5, 1927: Dumas had captured the arrival of the Viceroy and various princely guests, a Royal Darbar, a musical evening and much else. The second film was equally remarkable but quite different: it reconstructed the history of the Mughal dynasty through images of Mughal paintings juxtaposed against photographs of Mughal monuments; all this was built around the short film that Dumas had taken of Agra Fort, looking out onto the vistas that Shah Jahan would have seen during his long imprisonment.

The gardens of the Albert Kahn Museum were no less interesting than the exhibition. Overlooked by Albert Kahn’s chateau, they were designed in 1895 to reflect his universalistic ideals. Spread across eight acres, they are exquisitely landscaped to capture different moods and vistas: among others, there is an English garden, a French garden, a Japanese garden, an orchard, a greenhouse, a pavilion and a magnificent cluster of silver-blue firs known as the Blue Forest.

Who then was Albert Kahn? He was born in 1860 into a family of Jewish traders, which was displaced from Alsace-Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian war. At 16, Kahn became a junior clerk at a bank in Paris. In his spare time, he took tuitions which enabled him to pass two baccalaureate exams. His financial skills led to his rapid rise in the bank hierarchy: in 1894, he set up his own bank. He strongly believed that a knowledge of other countries and societies was pivotal to international harmony and peace and established bursaries for this; he also financed medical research. He believed he was a witness to a historic era and greatly changing times. From 1909-1931, he commissioned photographers to record images from some 50 countries: the Albert Kahn Museum’s astonishing collection ranges from photographs of heads of state, politicians, scientists and writers to processions of young orphans in 1920 and wounded combatants of World War I, the rise of Bolshevism, Ashura in Tehran in 1927 and the harvesting of pineapples in Honolulu. Alas, Albert Kahn’s financial empire did not survive the ravages of the Great Depression. His chateau was acquired by the local administration, though he was allowed to live there till his death in 1940. The museum was established in 1986 and there are great plans to develop it further.

Photos Copyright: Musée Albert-Kahn/Conseil Général des Hauts-de-Seine.