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The Camera as Witness: Visualising Mizo History through Photographs - Joy LK Pachuau


Updated: Aug 28, 2021

This illustrated talk was presented on August 16, 2017 as part of the 3rd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of India, Calcutta.

People of the North East often complain about the lack of representation of their history in the curricula of most school boards. One of the reasons for this is that, until recently, besides the colonial ethnographies, there was hardly any written history of the region. I have not been able to study the latest NCERT textbooks and their perceptions of the North East, but I believe that Rani Gaidinliu is often the only figure who finds mention in Indian history textbooks. When the region is represented in other kinds of works, it is usually in the context of the insurgency and the political instability originating from the separatist movements in the region. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that in the future, the region will receive its due representation, given that there has been much more research and scholarship on the region in the past decade.

The silence of the region and history from the margins are issues that I have time and again iterated in my lectures. History from the margins is usually not given much importance. In order to counter the under-representation of the North East, I decided to follow a visual approach, and use photography as a medium to trace the history of the Mizos. I have worked on this project with Willem van Schendel who has also worked on the visual history of an adjoining area in Bangladesh, the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

The University Grants Commission funded our project. Our methodology involved collecting images from the length and breadth of the state and neighbouring Mizo-inhabited areas, from all sections of society and from, as far as possible, all ethnic configurations. The idea was to collect a comprehensive visual account of Mizoram. We visited villages and approached the villagers, asking them to show us photographs from their family albums. Most people were happy to share, and we were thus able to collect more than 16,000 images, including those from archives in the UK. The project was intense and time-consuming, and it took us a little more than two years to collect the images. The procedure we followed was to take photographs of photographs. We asked for as much details of the photos as possible—names, places, dates, occasions that the photographs showcased, etc., although there were times when such information was not always available. By the end of the project, we were pleasantly surprised to know that these projects are not as expensive as one expects them to be and much can be done with small project grants.

The need for such a project was also because the visual past of the Mizos had never been adequately documented. The period of the insurgency from 1966 to 1986 also brought about the loss of Mizo material culture, as counter-insurgency operations led to the burning of several villages as a result of what was called the ‘grouping of villages’.

To put the photographs in context, one needs to know a bit about the history of the Mizos. The Mizos, a conglomeration of several tribes, were part of the many tribes moving into Northeast India from further east since the precolonial period. The actual cause of these migrations is not clear but they range from the need for new jhum lands, push from tribes further east, population explosion, etc. It was during these migrations and the British incursion into these territories either to establish tea gardens or to protect their territories that the Mizos and the British came into conflict. By the 1890s, Mizoram had come under the jurisdiction of Lushai Hills district, Assam, thereby becoming a part of British India. The arrival of the colonial officer introduced the camera into Lushai Hills and our earliest images are by them.

Christian missionaries soon followed. Among the many things they introduced was the Lushai/Mizo script based on Roman/Latin characters. This meant formal Western education was also introduced in the hills and through that the Mizos were connected with other regions and parts of the world. Missionaries, educated elites became another source for photographs.

I mentioned why it was important for us to carry out this project. To that I would like to add that a visit to the state museum in Aizawl will make one realize that in these displays the conceptualization of the past is very modern, since the past is portrayed through a contemporary lens. Thus the earliest visual images enable us to locate a certain authenticity about the past rather than these simple projections of what the past may have been. Images of the Mizos in the early colonial or in the precolonial past are rare. Unlike other ethnic groups of the North East, like the Nagas or the people of Arunachal, professional anthropologists had not visited the Mizos.

The result of this project was The Camera as Witness published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. We were also able to hold exhibitions, two each in Delhi and in Mizoram, and hope to do others elsewhere. The book was reprinted within the first year of its publication, and the exhibitions extremely well received although the reaction to the photographs differed in Delhi and Mizoram.

We were able to collect three genres of photographs from the colonial administrators, the missionaries and the family albums.

It is essential to mention in this context that photographs are not the first source that historians usually go to, to write their histories. They usually focus on written sources and sometimes even neglect the oral. The advantage of photographs is that the evidence they provide is material. They are often able to show visually what a written source may not take account of. Moreover, a photograph is taken at the time of the event whereas a written source is usually written after the events have occurred. This is of course not to say that photographs are infallible. They therefore have to be treated and understood with care.

Coming back to the reception of the photographs in Delhi and Mizoram: most people from Delhi were amazed by the modernity of the Mizos. Popular perceptions framed through the categories of ‘tribal’ expect perhaps images of primitiveness and savagery. However, many noticed the several engagements Mizos had with modernity and their very early reception of global culture. We may talk about transformation and focus on political transformation, but a photograph can change the trajectory of the narrative by uncovering details that would otherwise have been eclipsed or remained unexplored. In Mizoram, on the other hand, there was a fascination for the early images of the Mizos that included the arrival of colonialism. People often wanted to see images of their forefathers for such images are rare. The photographs from the period of the ‘troubles’ held a lot of fascination too, even though the Mizos are beginning to talk about the violence of the period only now.

The Camera as Witness was divided into four sections and a total of 23 chapters, even as we wanted to capture a hundred-year history of the Mizos. The first was called ‘Becoming Mizo’, the second ‘Mizoram in the New India’, the third ‘Visions of Independence’ and the last ‘Mizo Modernities’. These titles encapsulate, broadly, the kinds of photographs we encountered.

What follows is a sample of some of the images from our collection.

British troops at the memorial site of Vanhnuailiana, 1872. Photograph taken by R.G. Woodthorpe. Collection: Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.
British troops at the memorial site of Vanhnuailiana, 1872. Photograph taken by R.G. Woodthorpe. Collection: Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Vanhnuailiana (whom the British called Vonolel) was a powerful chief near Champhai in eastern Mizoram. He had died just before the first British invasion of 1871–72. Here we see British troops posing in front of his elaborate shrine. The ordinary soldiers in this photograph appear to be largely Sikhs from Punjab (to the left) and Gurkhas from Nepal (to the right), which is probably something that most people fail to acknowledge or realize.

A tombstone of a chief surrounded by skeletons of animals and bulls that he killed. Another photo that takes one back to the 1890 expedition when the British warred against the chief. The photo shows the courtyard of the chief.
A tombstone of a chief surrounded by skeletons of animals and bulls that he killed.
 The Lushai expedition had three starting points: Assam, in the north, Chittagong and Burma. The image of this army camp stationed at Lunglei caught my interest because of the display of cannons. Written sources of the period often talk about the difficulty in transporting military equipment to the hills. Images such as this enable us to speculate about the labour employed as well as the draught animals used in order to be able to carry out the expeditions.
Another photo that takes one back to the 1890 expedition when the British warred against the chief. The photo shows the courtyard of the chief.
Lushai chiefs posing with guns during their visit to Calcutta, 1872. Some of the chiefs in this photograph are Vanhnuaia (of Pukzing village, sitting in the left chair), Lalngura (in the middle chair), Rothangpuia (of Belkhai village, in the right chair), Lalngura (squatting on the left) and Lalchema (of Laisawral village, squatting on the right). These independent chiefs made the trip at the behest of T. H. Lewin, the British officer stationed at the border of their domain. Collection: Sainghinga.
A chief and his entourage. Collection: Lalhruaitluanga Ralte.

The provenance of this photograph is unknown. However, the image is of a chief and most probably his family, taken in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The gun undoubtedly was a cherished possession. The group appears to have posed for the photographer who has tried to make the image ‘ethnographic’.

This image is also interesting even as the photo reveals a firearm, a much valued item and whose presence reveals the global connections the region had even before the arrival of the British. The British, when they came, made it a point to control the movement of guns. Which is why unlicensed ones were often smuggled in from Burma and Bengal. Thus, an interesting connection existed between the Northeast and these places as far as trading firearms was concerned.

The Mission School in Aijal [Aizawl], 1903, with missionary D.E. Jones in the background. The first primary school was started in 1894. This is perhaps the earliest example of what would become a standard genre in Mizoram photography: the school or class photograph, complete with sign showing date and place. Collection: Synod Archives.
The building of the Presbyterian Hospital in Durtlang,1929. The missionary in shorts is E. L. Mendus. The hospital went on to train nurses and it became an important institution providing healthcare. Collection: Synod Hospital.
Miss Hughes with Durtlang choir, probably from the 1950s. Singing was an important means through which Christianity was imparted. Western choral singing was imbibed with gusto and the tonic sol-fa system was introduced. Katie Hughes (pictured here), also known as Pi Zaii or ‘Madam Songstress,’ was an important figure in the choral singing scene. Collection: Mizo Zirlai Pawl.

The previous three photographs depict the many ways in which the missionaries intervened in Mizo society— through education, medical facilities as well as the introduction of Western musical scales. Soon, the Mizos were being educated in Shillong and Calcutta and other places in India and abroad. They became well-known for their singing and the Mizos choirs went on tour everywhere. Photography soon became a tool that the Mizos employed for themselves and self-representation became an important idea. Following such interventions and changes, we see the Mizos representing themselves through the medium of photographs. The next three photos are examples of such self-representation.

Studio portrait of Mizo students in Silchar, 1921. First row, from left to right: unidentified, Pakunga, T. Luaia, Selluaia. Second row: Lama, Chalmawia, Hnûna. Collection: C.H. Liana.
Kaithuami and Laii, nursing students in Shillong, 1919. The young women in this elaborately decorated portrait stand in a tradition that began in the early 1900s, when nursing opened up as a career for women in Mizoram. Collection : Thankhumi.
Thangsailova in a gazebo in 1957, reclining in a pose strongly resembling cultural icon James Dean. The cowboy motif connected Mizo teenagers with the worldwide popularity of Hollywood films. Collection: Lalhmingliana.
The bazar area of Aizawl, Mizoram’s capital, after the Indian Air Force destroyed in March 1966. Collection: Aizawl Theological College. Collection: Aizawl Theological College.
Photo 13. Mizo fighters with rocket launchers and other equipment in Bangladesh, c.1980. Collection: Saitea—Mizo National Youth Front.

The Mizo rebels found a safe haven in East Pakistan between 1967 and 1971 and operated from Bangladesh from 1975 to 1986.

Women fighters Lalthansangi and Chalmawii with their guns, 1969. Collection: K. Lalsanthangi.

These women were among the few female combatants in the Mizo National Army. More women worked in supportive capacities, for example in the Medical Corps. The photograph was taken in the headquarters of the Lion Brigade in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, East Pakistan.

The last set of photographs depict the very many ways in which the Mizos engaged with modernity from the 40s through the 70s.

Durtlang Leitan’ [The Durtlang Gap], 1947. This full-length portrait of a young woman exudes suave elegance. She stands against the bare rock-face of the Durtlang Gap—a narrow breach in the mountain ridge that separates the towns of Aizawl from Durtlang—which has been a favourite location for Mizo photographers. Collection: Thanbuangi.
F. Sapbawia, 1950, posing confidently for the camera, smartly dressed in a suit and rakish fedora hat. Collection: V. Zochami.
Saimuana (centre) and his friends in Aizawl in 1970. Collection: Saichhunga.
Lalbuta, lead singer, and other members of the highly successful band Vulmawi on stage. Collection: Lalbuta.

Around 1980, Mizo bands from around the Chin State (Burma) had many fans among the young people in Mizoram. Some of their songs, in the Mizo language, went on to become classics.

Finally, to conclude, while photographs may not be able to tell the entire story, the visualness of the source offers a different kind of narrative. The photographs can be sites from where new questions arise but they are also useful in imagining vividly the past. The different genres of photographs have been influential in revealing a different kind of image of the region that gives us insights into the history that is otherwise not represented in textual sources.


Joy LK Pachuau is Professor, History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been working on the history of North East India with a focus on the history of identity formations, and her recent publications include Being Mizo: Identity and Belonging in Northeast India, The Camera as Witness: A Social History of Mizoram, Northeast India (with Willem van Schendel) and Christianity in Indian History: Issues of Culture, Power and Knowledge (co-edited, with P. Malekandathil and Tanika Sarkar).

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