Shapoor Bhedwar: A Parsi Pictorialist

In the 19th century, writing on photography seemed to favour journals and magazines while entire books were more unusual. Increasingly there were more and more publications to chose from, The Photographic Times being one to which many potential writers aspired.

Author: Malavika Karlekar Source: The Telegraph

Between 1871 and 1915, it was the pre-eminent American publication on photography after which the magazine became a part of Popular Photography. Its pages gave space to professional photographers as well as amateurs, taking care to balance various interests in editorials and provide valuable bits of information in a section on notes and news. Photographic societies were invited to send in brief write-ups on their activities and there was enough scope for discussions around innovations and experiments. Biographies of significant photographers were featured regularly as well as articles by them on certain aspects of their work. These were obviously carefully chosen as the ranks of hopefuls were growing quite rapidly.

14edittop In the closing years of the 19th century, the Parsi photographic aficionado, Shapoor Bhedwar, had acquired a significant reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. This was reflected in the exposure given to his work in The Photographic Times of 1894. In its issue of March 23, as a part of its continuing series on “Distinguished photographers of to-day”, the magazine carried a four-page spread on Bhedwar together with a selection of his photographs. His rather interesting career was sketched in detail, the author’s admiration palpable as he traced Shapoor’s life as a cricketer (he had played in England as part of a Parsi Eleven), playwright and maker of musical toy boxes. By the 1880s, photography had acquired more than a dilettante status in his life; in 1889, Bhedwar did a stint at London’s Polytechnic School of Photography, was soon exhibiting publicly and claimed prizes at various exhibitions and shows.On returning to India, he won a gold medal at the Photographic Society of India’s 1892 exhibition held in Calcutta. Unlike Raja Deen Dayal and other Indian photographers who followed the tradition of European studio photography rather assiduously, Bhedwar’s atelier was more experimental, clearly influenced by pictorialism which questioned the view that the photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality. He excelled in combining religious motifs with the secular, creating rather complex images with stylized models in elaborate garbs. In “The Voice of Silence”, a blind fakir instructs his pupil, a beautiful young maiden who looks up at him in adoration. It transpires that she is his daughter, a link with the secular world. The fakir reappears in the Renunciation series that again used elaborate stage sets as backdrop as well as over-gesticulated poses for the subjects of Bhedwar’s somewhat contrived frames.

If his imagery appeared to deliberately fracture the divide between art and photography, Shapoor Bhedwar’s contribution entitled “Portraiture”, serialized over three issues of The Photographic Times in March-April 1894, is a practical, hands-on discussion on the subject. It is only in the last part that there is some indication of his other persona, that of the photographic experimenter par excellence. Expectedly, he begins his article with a discussion on the studio that was — and is — integral for portraits; it was important to put the sitters at ease, he wrote, to “remove… any impression of restraint or stiffness”. Furniture was to be minimal and of the best quality, elegant and simple. Though he did not comment on backdrops that were unfurled and rolled up so many times in the day in most 19th-century studios, Bhedwar emphasized the need for well-graduated light and shade in these props. On the other hand, he was quite clear that “all accessories which savor in the least of artificiality in a photograph should be discarded”.

Bhedwar’s unease with an inappropriate use of props and accessories comes through in a most interesting discussion on the limitations of photography in relation to art. The photographer, he wrote, did not have the advantage of an artist in being able to choose an appropriate natural background. Backdrops were limited in number while nature was limitless. The artist’s brush helped him adjust the background for his portrait and “vary it according to the promptings of his artistic sense at the time”. Apart from the need for the interior of the studio to be well-designed, dress was of great significance. Interestingly, though Bhedwar invested much thought in the costumes for his artistic series, he advised simple attire for those who came to have their portraits taken. While for Indian women there was the additional benefit of garments that “can with the greatest ease be moulded into most graceful folds”, the “effect of chance”, of “natural negligence”, was most essential.

Discussion on all such matters, however, was secondary to that of composition, the construction of the picture, where it was essential to keep in mind “a harmonious arrangement of the details of lines, and light and shade”. An element of artfulness entered into the discussion at this stage when Bhedwar addressed the reality of there being much that was unattractive in everyday life: the photographer had to take this into account and use his skill to convey the overall “sense of agreeableness and pleasure”. He did not provide any strategies or solutions but left it to the individual photographer to negotiate his way towards a flattering image. It was not always easy and the social background of the sitters also had a role to play in this enactment. Bhedwar noted approvingly that while those of noble or royal lineage had a natural predilection to look intelligent and distinguished, those from the lower ranks of society ended up looking “stiff and unnatural”. A not unexpected comment from one used to a life of privilege and ease.

A good portrait was not easy to create and a lot depended on the sensitivity of the photographer to his subject’s appearance as well as the workings of the mind. The man behind the camera needed to have “a fine perception and keen insight into human character ere he can determine at a glance what is best to be done”. Here, Bhedwar seamlessly slips into referring to the photographer as an artist: interestingly, 30 years earlier, the man behind the camera was known as the operator, the photographer being the director of proceedings, as well as the composer and the artist. It would appear that by Bhedwar’s time, the roles of the one who composed and the one who pressed the button were merged — at least for a genre of portrait photographers who sought to question the divide between the new technical medium and high art.

A man whose work Bhedwar was clearly influenced by was the English photographer, Henry Peach Robinson, whose pictorialism and art photography made him one of the most influential photographers of the second half of the 19th century. Robinson’s influence was reinforced through his writings, and Bhedwar quoted approvingly his view that “the photographer must be possessed of a fine perception and a keen insight into human character… a reader of faces, a close scrutinizer of the minor workings of the mind”. At the same time, unity and harmony were of the essence, particularly if there were many actors within the frame. Bhedwar clearly had his multi-subject intricately composed through images in mind where even the slightes
t incongruity would produce “an effect most irritating to the eye”.

By the closing years of the 19th century, the camera had become an integral part of domestic and public spheres; soon, photographic criticism emerged as a discourse, making many photographers wary — often with justification. Bhedwar ended his discussion on portraiture by suggesting that the photographic critic not only needed to be “well versed… in the principles of art but also thoroughly understand the techniques”. Due allowance also needed to be made for “the artist’s individual characteristics” — if not idiosyncrasies. He noted that this was often not the case. Shapoor Bhedwar’s work reflected his belief that the photographer was an artist well-equipped in technical expertise as well as deeply immersed in human psychology. In the point-and-shoot protocol of today, Bhedwar’s expectations of what was required of a competent portrait photographer may appear a bit too idealistic. But his apprehensions regarding unjustified and ill-informed criticisms will surely find a resonance among those cautious of the digital age with its instant photographers, critics and connoisseurs.

Filed Under: Art