Ethnographic Photography

Palanquin Bearers, Bombay

This photograph of the Palanquin Bearers was taken by William Johnson in Bombay. The root-word for the English ‘palanquin’ is the same as the one for the Hindi ‘palang’: ‘palyanka’, Sanskrit for bed. Baked into the word itself is a promise of comfort. Palanquins were the transport of choice for wealthy travellers in 18th- and… Read more »

Whose land is it anyway?

We examine the themes presented in Saju Kunhan’s work as they are represented in our collection of rare 19th-century portraits, war photography, engravings, contemporary art and Warli painting

Where do we go from here?

Faced with the ravages of the global pandemic, we’re all seeking comfort, beauty and a way to strengthen that inner light no storm can disturb. ‘Shifting Selves’ offers the balm of art and history as it documents this journey inward


This photograph of the Mahar community is by William Johnson. The Mahars traditionally belonged to the lowest caste in the Hindu caste system in the Bombay presidency. This image originally formed a part of a series called ‘Photographs of Western India’ (1855-1862) by William Johnson. It reappeared in his later publication ‘The Oriental Races and… Read more »

Karnatika Brahmans

This photograph of the Karnatika Brahmins was taken by William Johnson. This image originally formed a part of a series called ‘Photographs of Western India’ (1855-1862) by William Johnson. It reappeared in his later publication ‘The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay’ (1863 and 1866). The series gives a glimpse into the… Read more »

Fisherwomen of Bombay

This photograph of the Fisherwomen of Bombay is by William Johnson.  The Kolis (fishing community) are oldest known inhabitants of the seven islands that make up this city, they have lived here for centuries—some say since 600 BCE. This community may not be as visible on the city’s bustling streets as they once were, but… Read more »

Cotton Merchants, Bombay

Following the Uprising of 1857, the British started to use photography to gather data on races, castes and communities to better understand the ethnic diversity of the subcontinent. This photograph is from ‘The Photographs of Western India’ (Vol.1), 1855-1852, one of the earliest photographic compendiums to be produced on ethnographic portraiture, taken by William Johnson… Read more »

Todas, Indigenous Tribe from Nilgiri Hills

This is an ethnographic photograph from the People of India album. It shows the Toda tribe of the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu. They were traditionally pastoralists who used shoals (Nilgiri copses) as building materials, shade and centres for ritual activities. The original People of India albums were issued in 1868. They were initially conceived as… Read more »

Udasees from the Sutlej

This photograph from the 1860 book, ‘People of India’ is captioned ‘Udasees from Sutlej.’ It carries the sign of the photo studio Shepherd & Robertson, which later became the long-running Bourne & Shepherd studio in Kolkata. Udasis are ascetics who follow the teachings of Srichand, son of Guru Nanak. These monks wear matted locks and… Read more »