British Academy Prize: ‘Courting India’ With a Photo Project

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The British Academy Book Prize is preparing a specially commissioned photographic exhibition based on its 2023 winner, ‘Courting India.’

Diamond industry workers take a lunch break in the shade at the historic British cemetery in Surat in India’s Gujarat state. Image: Arko Datto, commissioned in the British Academy-Panos Pictures project to create a photo exhibition based on Nandini Das’ ‘Courting India,’ the 2023 winner of the British Academy Book Prize

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: Nandini Das Wins the £25,000 British Academy Book Prize

Datto: ‘The Contemporary and the Historical’
Here’s an unusual update to an award in history writing, the news of which is being released today (June 19) by the British Academy in London.

Publishing Perspectives readers will recall November’s news that the University of Oxford’s Nandini Das had won the 2023 British Academy Book Prize for Cultural Understanding for her Courting India: England, Mughal India and the Origins of Empire (Bloomsbury, March 16, 2023).

Das received a purse of £25,000 (US$31,779) for her perspective on the arrival of the first English ambassador in India in the 17th century in a way that the competition’s organizers say, “moves us beyond a Eurocentric telling with an even-handed, entertaining tale.”

Since Das’ win was announced, the British Academy has commissioned Panos Pictures to capture imagery based on the themes of Courting India.

Panos Pictures is an agency that uses international photographers and filmmakers “to push boundaries, challenge assumptions, and inspire change,” in work that includes penetrating photo essays on issue-driven themes.

The British Academy program has commissioned India-based photographer Arko Datto “to creatively reinterpret Courting India,” which the academy’s jurors see as “a ground-breaking history of the first English diplomatic mission to India in the early 17th century.

There’s a relatively quick turnaround for the project, too, in that Datto’s work is to be exhibited on September 15 at the British Academy as part of London’s Open House weekend, and will be included in the overarching media campaign for the academy’s book prize—which, as our readers know, has the distinction of having begun working to quantify for the news media the impact that a win can have on book sales, something so far being done, to our knowledge, only by the Booker Prizes and the £50,000 Booker Prizes (for fiction and international translation) and the £50,000 Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction.

If anything, the commission for Datto is yet another step in the gathering evidence of the British Academy’s serious, responsible approach to its own nonfiction accolade “for global, cultural understanding.” The program—originally known as the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize—continues to evolve its approach, both in responsible reportage on how its honor can influence a winning book’s navigation of the market, and now in an extraordinary development of a new aesthetic dimension, photography, to support the work of one of its winners.

Clearly this shows the program’s dedication to its honorees, a handsome thing at a time when a plethora of prizes can make the phrase “award-winning” almost universally applicable.

The British Academy is supported in this new venture with Panos Pictures and Arko Datto by the Hawthornden Foundation, the investments of which in the industry are felt quite frequently in the United Kingdom’s literary life.

Tripp: ‘This Innovative Collaboration’

Charles Tripp

Comments on today’s news of this include the British Academy Book Prize chair Charles Tripp, saying, “The British Academy Book Prize’s mission is to enhance global cultural understanding.

“We want to celebrate books and authors, of course, but we also want to bring their ideas to a wider audience—and photography will help us do just that. We couldn’t be more excited about this innovative collaboration between Arko Datto and Nandini Das.”

Nandini Das

The author Nandini Das offers her gratitude “to Hawthornden Foundation and the British Academy for suggesting this wonderfully generative and imaginative project.

“It has been exhilarating for me to see aspects of the book refracted through Arko’s lens as he moved through some of the same spaces that I had approached primarily through over 400-year-old records.

“At the same time, it has reminded me repeatedly—with precision, empathy, and humor—how closely the past and the present are interwoven into the very fabric of everyday life in present-day India.”

Adrian Evans

At Panos Pictures, the agency’s director Adrian Evans says, “This is an exceptional opportunity for a photographer to create a contemporary project inspired by ground-breaking historical research.

“The idea of combining a book prize with a photographic commission is unique and the British Academy should be applauded for this exciting new initiative.”

And photographer Arko Datto is quoted, saying, “India’s motley mix of complexities, contradictions, and contrasts provides a rich canvas for this.

“Exploring hitherto unseen parts of the country, seeing its people and places anew, helped me approach the contemporary and the historical in exciting new ways.

“I hope the audience discovers traces of the incredible moments I experienced during this project.”

Detail of a portrait of Arko Datto. Image: Nora Lorek, provided by the British Academy

The 2024 British Academy Book Prize is in play now, with a shortlist expected on September 10 and a winner to be named on October 22, very shortly after Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 16 to 20).

More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing and book award programs is here, and on the British Academy Book Prize is here. More from us on the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, the honor’s original iteration, is here. More from us on the United Kingdom’s book and publishing market is here, and more on India is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.