Although Indian royalty have in the past formed the subject of several exhibitions and publications, the emphasis of these have always been centred around the figure of the male ruler, or the Maharaja. As a counterpoint to these narratives, the Maharanis: Women of Royal India exhibition and its accompanying publication, organised as part of Tasveer’s 10th anniversary season, focuses on the Maharanis and other royal women of erstwhile Princely India.
The Tasveer Journal provides a peek behind the pages of the heavily illustrated book title that accompanies the exhibit, by reproducing an extract from its introduction. The book, published in association with Mapin Publishing, also includes four original texts authored by Pramod Kumar K. G., Amin Jaffer, Martand Singh & Shilpa Vijayakrishnan. Now available for sale, the book can be found at all major retail bookstores and online sellers, and can also be ordered at www.tasveerarts.com/publications/
The exhibition can next be caught at the India Art Fair in Delhi, at the Tasveer Gallery in Bangalore and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad — for full details of its schedule, please visit http://www.tasveerarts.com/exhibitions/Maharanis/
The following extract has been reproduced with due permissions, and may not be republished without prior authorisation.
– ABHISHEK PODDAR & NATHANIEL GASKELL
Photographs give us a world that exists halfway between fact and fiction. On the one hand, they appear to truthfully describe what was in front of the camera at a given time; yet on the other hand, they draw us into a space of illusion—through a triangulation between the eye of the photographer, the performance of the sitter, and the imagination of the viewer. At the same time, photographs reveal truths and describe facts which are central to how we understand history, and consequently, the world around us. The sphere of Indian royalty—of great kingdoms and eccentric rulers—itself exists in the cultural consciousness in a space between myth and reality; with maharajas’ and maharanis’ reputations and projections often eclipsing empirical fact.
This book concentrates on portraits of royal women who lived during the last phase of the erstwhile royal families in India—from around the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. This period in history coincided with the invention and rise of photography, which quickly replaced painting as the means for royals and members of high society to record themselves, for each other and for posterity. Photography’s ability to provoke nostalgia, combined with the heady world of what is arguably the most glamorous era of Indian royalty, has given us some of the most captivating, and often simply beautiful, portraits in the history of the medium in India. However, when we delve beneath the surface, there is much more to these images than first meets the eye, and they shine a light on some of the important narratives relating to the end of empire, and a country in the throes of great political, social and aesthetic transition. They speak of a complex time of cultural interplay of European and Indian ideologies, of a shift in the role of women in the public sphere and in private; of a progression away from the practice of purdah and towards women entering politics and positions of real power and influence.
Although not a comprehensive survey, this collection does include subjects from across the length and breadth of the country—from Travancore in the south, right up to Jammu and Kashmir in the north; from Tripura in the east to Rajasthan in the west. It includes exceptional portraits of some of the most iconic and celebrated women from the country’s modern history—significant amongst them Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur, Sita Devi, Maharani of Kapurthala and Vijaya Raje Scindia, Rajmata of Gwalior, as well as equally interesting examples of lesser known sitters, from the sprawling and often fragmented landscape which made up Princely India in the first half of the 20th century, such as Dhrol and Katesar. Also of note is the inclusion of some of the Ranas from Nepal (originally of the Sisodia clan from Udaipur), who continued to reinforce their historic ties to the subcontinent by marrying into Indian royal families. Whilst the majority of the portraits come from the many India-based studios which opened up primarily in Bombay, Delhi and Kolkata in the late 19th century, such as Bourne & Shepherd and Kinsey studios, also included are portraits by some of the most famous and sought after photographers in Europe at the time, including the great Henri Cartier-Bresson and the celebrated society and fashion photographer and aesthete, Cecil Beaton, as well as renowned London studios such as Bassano Ltd. and Dorothy Wilding.
The four essays presented [in the book] provide information to aid multiple ways of approaching these portraits; from the academic to the anecdotal. Pramod Kumar gives us a historical perspective of royal portraiture in India, whereas Martand Singh writes emotively from first-hand experience, of the lives of some of the most iconic amongst these women. Amin Jaffer takes a closer look at what we can learn and ascertain from studying the jewels and clothes sported in the photographs, and Shilpa Vijayakrishnan delves into the gender debates surrounding the visual representation of women in India and their place in society.
Pramod Kumar’s text describes how, despite photography arriving in India as early as 1839—only a few months after its invention in Europe—the first photograph known to be taken of an Indian princess dates from 1854, and was in fact taken in England. With the exceptions of some extremely rare photographs from the late 1850s, such as that of the last Mughal Empress Begum Zeenat Mahal, the first decades of photography in India turn up very few examples of female royal portraits. By the 1880s, with the establishment of Indian court photographers such as Raja Deen Dayal at Nizam’s Court in Hyderabad, and K. L. Syed in Palanpur, the practice of royal photographic portraiture in India had begun to take root and develop its own visual vocabulary, in part borrowing from British Victorian conventions, yet interestingly infused with some remnants of miniature painting and a more Indian aesthetic.
Having personally known and lived amongst many of the women in this book, Martand Singh’s synaesthetic prose conjures up a delightful feeling of the era—with the scenes he recounts from observation every bit as magical as we could ourselves dream up. He focuses on five of the most iconic maharanis from modern history: Rajmata Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Princess Durru Shehvar of Berar, Princess Niloufer and Princess Sita of Kapurthala (Martand Singh’s mother), and we gain privileged insights into their world—of dresses, of parties and of visits to foreign dignitaries, as well as their more domestic, everyday lives.
Singh’s descriptions of these women, and the corresponding photographs reproduced in this book paint a heady picture suggestive of an effortless and natural effect bestowed on them as a result of their position. In his text for this publication, Amin Jaffer suggests that this is not perhaps as accidental and effortless as one might first assume; he describes how portraits of royals in India were used as statements of power and a projection of moral and physical attributes. Further, by not simply admiring the dresses and jewels, but by examining what they signify, we are rewarded with an insight into the shifting political, cultural and aesthetic mood of the time—the repercussions of which are still being felt today.
Shilpa Vijayakrishnan’s text, also explores the idea of there being more to these photographs than their outward beauty and mystery, and of how in fact many of the sitters challenge the pervading view of the subjugated position of women at the time. For example, the kingdom of Travancore had a matrilineal system of inheritance, and was without the veiling practice of purdah. A photograph of two young girls from the Travancore royal family shows them confidently looking at the camera and armed with the knowledge of their social position, and one’s reading of the image changes.
Maharani Gayatri Devi, who frequently features in this book, whilst being a princess, played a keen role in affecting change in gender debates in India, and was in fact responsible for the ending of purdah in Jaipur. She was also engaged in empowering women during the transformation of princely, British ruled India to a democratic republic, and, as Vijayakrishnan writes, “her life stood as testament to the paradoxes of having lived through, and even straddled, two very different eras”.
By existing simultaneously in these two worlds—as a larger than life, endlessly glamorous princess, as well as progressive political activist—Gayatri Devi exemplifies the often complex world of royal women in India that this book hopes in some way to reveal. Her formal portraits consummate the romantic image of this period in Indian history, that the process of photography itself helped to create; yet when we scratch beneath the surface, we are rewarded by a deeper insight into a shifting period of history; both aesthetic and socio-political; which photography both obscures and reveals.