Imaging the Isle Across: Vintage Photography from Ceylon

Discovering the Rich History of Colonial Sri Lanka

For a journalist, it’s difficult to think of Sri Lanka without considering its recovery from a long and tumultuous conflict. However, before this period of bloodshed and warfare, there was a country known as Ceylon, which served as Sri Lanka’s colonial “other.”

A Glimpse into Life in Colonial Ceylon

What was life like in Ceylon? How did the island appear? Who were its people? What were their customs, clothing, and occupations? What role did spirituality play in their lives?

These questions, and the complexities they bring, are all part of the captivating exhibition “Imaging the Isle Across – Vintage Photography from Ceylon” at India’s National Museum. The exhibition provides a mesmerizing portrayal of an island that underwent profound changes under European colonization.

Unveiling the Past through Vintage Photography

Featuring original photographic prints from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the exhibition opened in New Delhi on September 26. These captivating images were captured by travelers who were drawn to Ceylon due to its natural beauty and strategic position in the Indian Ocean.

Visitors to the exhibition are presented with an idyllic view of colonial Sri Lanka, where palm trees sway, fishing boats dot the coastline, vast plantations stretch across the fields, and hills and waterfalls paint a picturesque backdrop. However, the exhibition also offers a critical examination of how Europeans perceived their “subjects,” delving into topics of exoticism, gender roles, and social stereotypes.

Unraveling the Layers of Exoticism

Curator Rahaab Allana, from the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, sheds light on the concept of exoticism within the images. He explains, “An exoticism is also like an inscription of fantasy, and in a sense, photography should at least make you look at that image and think about what is possible outside that frame. Looking at these images is also looking beyond these images.”

The exhibition, sourced from the foundation’s archive, consists of approximately 120 photographs that reveal more than they capture. Through these snapshots, individuals from humble backgrounds, including laborers and lower-caste women, emerge as larger-than-life figures, challenging the class divisions of their time. Simultaneously, the collection captures the lives of the colonial elite, providing a glimpse into a composite and cosmopolitan Sri Lanka.

Beyond the Camera’s Lens

While the photographs offer a window into the lives of Ceylon’s inhabitants, they also highlight the detachment and anonymity with which the locals modeled for the camera. Candor is scarce in these images, leading us to contemplate the parallel narrative of social unrest and resistance against colonialism that unfolded in Kandy in 1848 and eventually spread throughout the island.

Colonization and its Consequences

Ceylon’s history was shaped by successive waves of colonization, starting with the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, Danes, French, and finally, the British in 1815. Serving as a “repository of oriental wealth,” Ceylon experienced intense industrialization and became a flourishing plantation economy in the 19th century. The nation gained independence in 1948.

Colonial commerce brought slavery, environmental destruction, and the transformation of habitats, all of which are recorded in the exhibition. One photograph from the 1880s depicts a coffee estate in Lindula surrounded by ravaged trees, while another showcases the offices of a coffee estate nestled on Brownlow’s hills.

Traversing Time and Space

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey from Ceylon’s period of modernization to the eerie tranquility of its ancient sites, now abandoned but once carefully reclaimed from the wilderness. These archaeological wonders, previously hidden within dense jungles, have been transformed into orderly and captivating cultural sites.

Given Sri Lanka’s predominantly Buddhist heritage, no discussion on the island’s history would be complete without acknowledging the significance of monks, temples, and pagodas. One notable image captures a group of Burmese monks gathered in worship at the Kandy Temple, their hands folded in devotion as they converge around a symbol deeply revered in Buddhism—a tooth relic of the Buddha.

Embracing a Multidimensional Perspective

Together, these photographs defy simplistic interpretations of Sri Lanka’s colonial past. While they evoke a sense of romantic nostalgia, they also invite critical contemplation. The exhibition challenges visitors to look beyond the captivating imagery and delve into the complexities of history.

The “Imaging the Isle Across – Vintage Photography from Ceylon” exhibition will be on display until November 10 at the National Museum in New Delhi. Please note that the gallery is closed on Mondays.

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DHPL Travels

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