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In 19th-century India, British colonial officials and geologists created a legacy of private and official archives of major earthquake disasters, including newspaper clippings, geometrical measurements and photographs. This talk examines the metaphors, symbolisms and representations that photographs carried in the aftermath of a disaster by examining colonial photo collections kept in British and Indian archives, while considering the ways that photographs were produced, organised and catalogued. It compares photographs from three major earthquakes: in Assam, India, 1897 and 1950; Nepal and Bihar, India, 1934; Kangra 1905; and Quetta, Balochistan (now Pakistan), 1935. Ethnographic examination of earthquakes through the study of photographs as an archival source makes one aware of the nuances in representation that are often missed by written texts. Visual archives can produce a long term register of the disaster event that can be of novel value for anthropological investigation of earthquakes and their long term impact on society and public policy on disaster risk reduction. Drawing on research from the AHRC-funded project 'Broken Ground: Earthquakes, colonialism and nationalism in South Asia, c.1900-1960', this talk shows that photographs were crucial to substantiate colonial state and Indian nationalist (Indian National Congress) political appeal for relief and reconstruction in the colony.
Debojyoti Das, Bristol, is an anthropologist of South Asia focussing on the borderlands of eastern India and the Indian Ocean. He has earlier worked in Sussex and Yale University. His research interests are in trans-disciplinary work which feeds into the use of different qualitative methods and tools for research.
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Image: Preliminary Report of the Assam Earthquake 15 August, 1950, British Library IOR/ V/ 20/209