Are we a nation without any sense of history?

T.S. NAGARAJAN writes: Photography is history and life. The major contribution of the camera in this century has been to preserve for all time the memorable moments of contemporary history. It is the prerogative of the camera to record the present as a reliable witness, and this is what makes photography a witness to the past as well.

When one thinks of this everlasting aspect of photojournalism, two names, among many, stand out in focus: Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier Bresson. Both these two internationally acclaimed photojournalists visited India during its most eventful years.

Margaret Bourke-White, that gallant and great woman, was here during the historic days of the Partition. She not only recorded the great migration in breath-taking pictures but also wrote the well-known book Half-way to Freedom which, even to this day, is perhaps the most telling documentation of the Partition.

It was given to Cartier-Bresson to make the historic picture of Nehru as he made the famous “Light has gone out of our lives” speech from the gate of the Birla House on the day Gandhiji fell a victim to his assassin’s bullet.

Nearer home, we have our own photojournalists T.S. Satyan and Raghu Rai among others. Satyan’s record of Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement and Raghu Rai’s pictures of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, great human documents, are invaluable slices of India’s history witnessed and preserved by the camera. These were great events which the world took notice of because of their international importance and immense topicality and hence got documented.

But, almost every day, a number of things are happening all over India, as part of the social and technological revolution that the country is witnessing at present. Some of these changes are visible while others are taken for granted and thus not noticed. Instances of ‘missed opportunity’ from contemporary India are many.

On the day freedom came to us, there was irrepressible celebration all over the country, especially at Vijay Chowk in New Delhi. Apart from images of the happenings inside the Parliament House, sadly there is no proper visual record of this great day in Indian history.

# The horse-drawn carriage is still with us but fast going the way of the palanquin and the howdah.

# The lowly plough has given place to the tractor.

# The bullock cart too, though ambling slowly, has set a course for oblivion.

# The hurricane lamp is becoming a thing of the past.

# Tiny transistors have replaced the bulky radios.

# The television has invaded our villages and the mobile phone is no longer confined to our cities.

All these are unquestionable evidence of a shining India, and examples of the unshining part are too numerous to list.

Often in the past, it has so happened that an onlooker did record subjects Indian, and we were forced to depend on his testimony to understand ourselves. The woodcuts and water colours made by gifted, but hardly objective, Englishmen during their sojourn here are examples of such a presentation.

We know today how the 16th, 17th and 18th century India looked like from their point of view, because artists of the Company School recorded for friends at home all that they found odd, romantic, unfamiliar to the contemporary eye; nevertheless, they needed to be documented for the sake of authenticity.

To say that there is a complete absence of visual documentation of our vast but fast-changing society would be incorrect. The electronic and the print media are doing a great job; but the kind of documentation they are doing is often very selective and conditioned by the topicality and news-worthiness of the subjects. Lalu and his lifestyle interests them more than that of his State of Bihar and its people.

All too often we are aware of the change when it is only too late, when the new has completely supplanted the old. This disinterest in looking at contemporary history with a future perspective has already cost us dearly. Major personalities and events from our public life have often gone unrecorded in terms of photojournalistic documentation causing many a sad and empty page in our otherwise colourful national album.

During the Great Depression, The Farm Security Administration under Franklin D. Roosevelt used photography with such pioneering spirit that the document ultimately became an important piece of American history. A group of around twenty photographers worked under the direction of economist Roy E. Stryker to create a pictorial record of the impact of hard times on the nation, primarily on rural Americans.

The core of this collection, which consists of about 164,000 black and white photographs, is among the most famous documentary photographs ever produced. The American Library of Congress, which holds this collection at present, offers this resource to the nation and its people as a contribution to education and life-long learning

There is an urgent need for a central institution to undertake an exhaustive and methodical documentation of the land, people, history and culture vis-à-vis the deliberate engineering of social and other changes taking place in all aspects of life in our country today.

A national library of photographic documentation may well become such an institution to take on the function. Covering every aspect of Indian life and encyclopedic in scope, this national centre (which may be christened suitably) will help the historian (present and future), the sociologist, the editor, the text-book writer and the investigator.

# This institution will identify and locate important events and subjects which, for one reason or the other, escape proper documentation and make available for future use an indelible picture of our changing life.

# It will also bring under one roof in an easily retrievable form, all scattered collections of historical photographs and other visual documentation now available in museums, government departments, private collections and newspaper offices.

# This national center will set out to create reliable and significant pictorial data for the future investigator, which will make the dispassionate objectivity of the camera a powerful tool for interpreting the present to the future.