The People of India, Volume 1–8
The multi-volume photographic and print publication, The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress, of The Races and Tribes of Hindustan, was an illustrative document of the various social and ethnic groups across the Indian subcontinent. This included several of the country’s native castes and tribes that were represented through a clinical and taxonomic gaze typical of colonial ethnography at the time. Primarily consisting of 468 annotated photographs compiled by chronicler John Forbes Watson and historian John William Kaye, the series was published by the Government of India under the British Crown. Containing over five hundred (15 x 11 cm) albumin prints accompanied by detailed descriptions by Capt. T. Meadows (administrator, novelist and artist), the publication also formed an exhibit in the India pavilion of the 1862 London Exhibition. Produced shortly after the 1857 Rebellion, The People of India is considered a significant early publication that integrated photography and colonial ethnography as tools of administration and governance.
The undertaking started out as a personal project for the first viceroy of India, Charles Canning, and his wife Charlotte, who wanted to build a collection of photos of the native people of India. When formalised in 1861 as a call from the colonial offices to military officers to submit photographs with detailed notes on various social groups across the Indian subcontinent, the initial result was a large collection of inconsistently annotated images of varying quality. The classifications of subjects specified in the official circular included ethnicity, caste, social group, regional power, language, clothing, profession and attributes such as trustworthiness, honesty and propensity of violence. The years leading up to the formal dissolution of British East India Company rule in 1874, and the reorganisation of administrative power under the British Raj, allowed publications such as The People of India to gain added significance as a form of colonial control.
However, the subjectivity of some of the series’ parameters, and a general lack of organisation, resulted in discrepancies, overlaps and omissions (it completely excluded communities of fewer than two thousand people), delaying the project until it was eventually passed, after the demise of the Cannings, into the remit of the Government of India. Despite the scope afforded by its hundreds of images and its simple format, the series was received poorly by the colonial elite, for whom it was ostensibly meant to serve as a guidebook on the locals. According to scholar and educator Syed Ahmad Khan, one of the foremost critics of the series, the Indian elite also viewed it poorly, as they thought the categorisation was demeaning to their own identities. Whatever the original intent, the project — touted by some scholars as a surveillance program rooted in early ethnology and criminology — was quickly dismissed during its time.
The series has however, in the last fifty years, received renewed interest, especially from postcolonial scholarship, for its overt, if unarticulated, ethnographic ambitions. Of particular interest to scholars is its frequent focus on the varying degrees of criminality among the indigenous groups of the subcontinent. Scholars argue that the photography–ethnography model was introduced as a pseudo-scientific justification of colonial rule, by categorising the Indian people as an aggregate of largely regressive and barbaric groups, in order to exercise a deep, precise control over them. In addition, its indexing of social groups further perpetuated ill-informed and at times outright discriminatory belief systems held by many aspects of the Indian caste system. The contemporary position on the book series is that it was fuelled by the insecurity following the 1857 Rebellion by Indian troops in the colonial military and was the result of a profiling exercise carried out to help prevent other such insurgencies.
The various interpretations and analyses themselves are not without their flaws and controversies, as they are all largely derivative. The foundational scholarship that underpins much of the discourse on this ethnographic series has been attributed to John Falconer and Christopher Pinney; the former’s A Pure Labour of Love (2002) is credited as the most exhaustive publishing history of the People of India series and the latter’s Camera Indica (1997) is thought to lay down the analytical framework of the series.
Aside from its discrepancies and harmful taxonomy, there is now a clear consensus on the value of The People of India as an illustrative historical document of the early British Raj’s strategic and discriminatory use of photography as an ethnographic tool. In 1908 and 1992, two other volumes bearing the same title were also published, but each separately and with different motivations that had no direct connection to the first series. Meanwhile, the 1868 multi-volume series continues to be a subject of much scholarly debate.
Chaudhary, Zahid Rafiq. Afterimage of Empire Photography in Nineteenth-century India. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Farquhar, Jessica. 2016. Beyond Binding: Reconceptualizing Watson and Kaye’s The People of India 1868-1875. PhD diss. University of California, Los Angeles. https://escholarship.org/content/qt0323w55j/qt0323w55j.pdf.
Gaskell, Nathaniel, and Diva Gujral. Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present. London: Prestel, 2018.
Metcalf, Thomas R. Ideologies of the Raj. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge University Press. 2003.
Pinney, Christopher. Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographers. London: Reaktion Press, 1997.