Treasure in a shoe box

May 10, 2012, 06:52 IST | Hemal Ashar

An institution that collects pictures of historical importance, has discovered pictures of India in the British Raj, in the unlikeliest of places, proving that the Empire strikes back in surprising ways

A century-old collection of photographs of India has been discovered in the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) building in Edinburgh, Scotland. These remarkable pictures may tell extraordinary stories but how and where they were found makes quite a tale itself. A RCAHMS employee was taken aback when, during a recent re-housing of all of RCAHMS’ glass plate collection, a shoe box was found, “in the cold store of the RCAHMS main building of John Sinclair House in Edinburgh,” said a RCAHMS spokesman on email from Edinburgh. The shoebox seemed innocuous enough, a grey, size 9, Peter Lord slip-on shoebox. When opened it had 178-glass plate negatives, which date back to around 1912, showing ‘life on the subcontinent at the high point of the British Raj’, says the website. The negatives it is learnt were stored in their original five-by-eight inch plate boxes and wrapped in copies of The Statesman newspaper which the website stated dated back to 1914.

Royal Insurance Building, Kolkata from across the Lal Dighi tank, lit for the British royal visit

The RCAHMS spokesman explained, “We do not have the exact date they were found. It is thought that they may have come to our collection 20 or 30 years ago, as part of large amount of archive material gifted to RCAHMS. We have recently been updating our storage facilities, and the shoe box was found in the cold store of the RCAHMS main building of John Sinclair House in Edinburgh. It was discovered at the back of the room, hidden from view by other archive material.”

Riverbank with bathers and ship, probably from Chandpal Ghat, Kolkata

The shoebox itself was found by, “Our Head of Collections, Lesley Ferguson, as part of the re-housing of all RCAHMS’ glass plate negative collection. She passed them on to Architectural Investigator, Clare Sorensen who identified them as mostly being of the city of Kolkata. Clare had been involved with the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust on the survey of the Scottish Cemetery, Kolkata in 2008,” said the RCAHMS about the genesis of the happy discovery. Incidentally, The Scottish Cemetery at Calcutta was established in 1820 catering to the specific needs of the large Scottish population in the Kolkata area. These Scots, including soldiers, missionaries, jute traders and businessmen were attached to numerous enterprises in the area such as the headquarters of the East India Company, and the administration of the British Raj, whose capital was here. The cemetery was utilised until the 1940s but was abandoned in the 1950s and neglected following India’s independence.

The institution states that some of the photographs depict celebrations for the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1912 — the only visit by a British monarch to India as Emperor of the subcontinent — with the city’s buildings lit up at night in tribute; ships arriving at the Chandpal Ghat, the main landing place for visitors to Calcutta along the Hooghly river; pilgrims gathered for a religious festival on the Maidan, the large urban park at the centre of Calcutta; and merchants selling their wares outside the eleventh century Jagganath Hindu temple in Orissa.

The RCAHMS’ Sorensen has been quoted as saying, “We do not know for sure how the negatives came to be in our collection. We receive archive material from countless different sources, from architectural practices to generous donations from the public, and sometimes take large amounts of material in at once, and often documentation for historical deposits does not exist. Over time all this new material will be inspected and catalogued as part of our collection and then made available to the public.”

Talking about the uniqueness of the find, a treasure found in a shoebox, Sorenson is quoted by the website as saying, “It is fantastic that a small shoe box contained such a treasure-trove of photographic imagery, but in some ways it is not unusual. Our experience as an archive has shown us that some of the most interesting discoveries can be made in the most unlikely of places.” When asked what the RCAHMS is going to do with the pictures, a spokesman said, “Now that the imagery has undergone cataloguing and digitisation, there is potential for looking at how the photographs be made accessible for the public to enjoy. They can be viewed online now, and while there are no specific plans for an exhibition, it is something that our Collections Department is keen to explore in the future. Sorensen has already carried out a lot of research into the imagery, though so far the identity of the photographer still remains a mystery.” In fact, the website has stated that since research is ongoing about the mystery photographer anybody with any kind of information about the collection or the photographer could contact Sorenson on an email address:

*All pics courtesy: RCAHMS.
*Kolkata and Calcutta have both been used in this story.

What is RCAHMS?
The Endinburgh-based body looks after an archive of many millions of photographs, maps, drawings and documents about buildings and landscapes, from prehistory to the present day. Their survey teams travel across Scotland, to investigate, photograph and record changing architecture and archaeology, both on the ground and from the air. Responding to widespread concern at the destruction of historical monuments, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) was established by Royal Warrant to make a list or Inventory of the surviving heritage from earliest times up to the year 1707.  

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