In partnership with Vacheron Constantin, supported by Singleton

Maharajas









The photographs in this exhibition are an evocation of princely India and an historical record of an age we will never again experience. Each portrait reflects an unmistakeable aura of majesty, effortlessly carried and eloquently captured. The photographic portrait is never truly opaque and behind the façade of splendid dress and gleaming jewels, we glimpse a rare human side to the sitters. As the historian E. Jaiwant Paul noted, ‘The princes of India were undoubtedly one of the great anachronisms of the twentieth century. Among them were enlightened rulers and profligate princes, saints and scoundrels, heroes, charmers and eccentrics’. Indeed, it is this perfect combination of charm and eccentricity, framed through history’s lens, which makes these portraits so compelling. The subjects presented here, whose royal families can be traced back for centuries, mark the end of an epoch in India’s long history of ruling principalities. Besides the fabulous palaces and legends that these individuals left behind, we have their remarkable photographs.
 
 
Photography arrived in India within a few months of Fox Talbot’s invention of the paper negative in England in 1839. Finding its way to the subcontinent via the East India Company, photography was initially practiced by the army and a select group of wealthy Indian hobbyists. By the 1850s photographic societies were established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras and commercial studios popped up in all the major cities, whilst nomadic ‘photo booths’ travelled to the bazaars of smaller towns. By the end of the nineteenth century, a large number of European photographers had expertly documented many of India’s architectural sites, as well as making anthropological studies of the various social groups from across the country. Photographers such as Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd, John Edward Saché and E. Taurines were the leaders in this field, and their work constitutes an important and rewarding chapter in the history of photography in India. Many of their photographers were included in Tasveer’s previous exhibition, ‘100 vintage Views of India’.
 
At the same time that these foreign ‘travel photographers’ were documenting the country’s historic sites, the Indian-owned photographic studios were also thriving. Less concerned with the familiar architectural gems of the country, these early studios began producing photographic portraits of India’s prosperous mercantile and professional classes, and of course its Maharajas and princes. So much so, that by the beginning of the twentieth century, portiature in India was undergoing great change, whereby the camera not the brush was becoming the tool of choice for capturing people’s likenesses. 
 
Photographic portraits from around this time mark a departure from the practice of courtly painting and constitute a new era in the rich history of portraiture in India. Interestingly, the influence of painting is still evident in many of the photographs seen here. Studios and patrons were interested in exploiting photography as a replacement painting, but they adopted many of the latter’s visual devices as a means of legitimising this new art form. In the black and white portraits, the relationship is evident in the compositions and use of illusionistic backdrops, where staged interior tableaux lead onto illusionistic scenes of royal gardens and distant landscapes, such as in the photograph of the Prince of Jamnagar on page 24 and the portrait of the Nawab of Palitana on page 48. The most obvious manifestation of this transition between mediums can, however, be seen in the hand-painted photographs, such as the portrait of the Maharaja of Udaipur, on page 58. Similarly to Mughal schools of painting, the photographic studios that produced such images created workshops (Kharkhanas) and employed artists to paint directly on to the photographs – appealing to their patron’s demands for vibrant palettes and creating a wonderful hybrid form of photography. This marriage between fact, fiction and aesthetic opulence, can be seen as a defining fact of both the photographs on display here and the people they depict.

Exhibition Schedule

Delhi

25 September - 06 October 2021


Mumbai

21 October - 29 October 2021


Ahmedabad

13 December - 23 December 2021


Bangalore

18 January - 09 February 2022


Kolkata

30 March - 09 April 2022