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Annapurna Dutta, one of the first female photographers, clicked Sarojini Naidu, Muslim elites

It was uncommon for women of the era to work outside. So, Dutta visited wealthy Indian families for commissioned portraits and developed the photographs herself at home.

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Born in 1894 in undivided Bengal, Annapurna Dutta was one of the first professional female photographers at a time when photography was largely a male-dominated profession. She is known for her portraits of families in the domestic space, as well as notable figures, such as Sarojini Naidu. Her husband, Upendranath Dutta, though a lawyer by profession, was also an amateur photographer himself.

Dutta came to prominence as a photographer in the 1920s, producing a bulk of her work in the ’30s and ’40s. Since it was uncommon for women of the era to work outside the home, Dutta did not operate out of a studio; instead, she visited wealthy Indian families for commissioned portraits, and developed and printed the photographs herself in her home studio. Her portraits depicted subjects in their homes, usually wearing traditional clothing and surrounded by their families and possessions.

Photograph of an Old Lady and a Woman by Annapurna Dutta, c. 1920, Bromide print| Image courtesy of the private collection of Siddhartha Ghosh/ Trans-Asia Photography Review.
Photograph of an Old Lady and a Woman by Annapurna Dutta, c. 1920, Bromide print| Image courtesy of the private collection of Siddhartha Ghosh/ Trans-Asia Photography Review.

Also read: Why old black-and-white wedding photos lack smiling couples


Dutta frequently visited and photographed the Muslim elite, including the politician and Bengal’s erstwhile premier Hassan Suhrawardy, the poet Jasimuddin and the singer Abbas Uddin Ahmed. Interestingly, despite her being a female visitor to their households, the Muslim women in her photographs are shown in purdah, possibly because the photographs might later be seen by men.

Her most well-known image is perhaps a self-portrait in which she stands beside her plate camera in a three-quarter profile, holding the lens cap while looking beyond the frame. In the image, she wears the clothing and jewellery typical of a married woman, suggesting that domestic life was still expected to be represented traditionally, even as more women became involved in newer practices such as photography. Today, this photograph, along with other glass plate negatives made by her, are part of a collection held by her son Amarendranath Dutta.

Annapurna Dutta passed away in 1976, at the age of eighty-two.

This excerpt is taken from MAP Academy’s ‘Encyclopedia of Art’ with permission.

The MAP Academy is a non-profit, online platform — consisting of an Encyclopedia, Courses and a Blog — which encourages knowledge building and engagement with the visual arts of the region.

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