A photograph from 1951 shows Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur elegantly draped in a chiffon sari looking poised and confident. Voted as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world by Vogue magazine (in the ’60s), she held two Guinness World Records: for having the most expensive wedding in the world at the time and receiving the largest margin of votes at the parliamentary elections post-Independence. She also caused a scandal when she married the much-older, twice-married Maharaja of Jaipur. Much-lauded for her beauty, there were other facets to her personality as well — she worked tirelessly for women’s empowerment and abolishing the purdah system in Jaipur.
This image is one of the 69 modern reprints of queens and women belonging to royal families of the country (from the 1850s to the 1950s) that feature in Tasveer Arts’ travelling exhibition — Maharanis: Women of Royal India, and the illustrated book accompanying the exhibition. The images were painstakingly sourced over a year from the archives of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, the Victoria & Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Amar Mahal Museum & Library in Jammu.
Where are all the women?
In the pre-Independence era, the length and breadth of India was composed of 500 kingdoms and zamindaris. While most documentation showcases the Maharaja, his court life, jewellery, costumes and architecture, the Maharanis were often sidelined.
“The presence of women within the narratives have largely been fleeting, and the focus remained on male subjects. The primary reasons seem to be cultural — social convention bound to a largely patriarchal system of kingship, and the practice of purdah,” says Shilpa Vijayakrishnan, research associate, Tasveer Arts.
Things changed, however, with the advent of portraiture by miniature artists and photography (in the 19th century). Early photographic portraits showed rulers bedecked in regalia, accompanied by their children, wives or attendants. With improved technology, the royals began to open up and experiment, and numerous photos of the family and the Maharanis emerged. These images offer a counterpoint to the narrative focusing on the Maharaja or male ruler by showcasing the feminine aspect.
The power centre
At first glance, the photographs seem to depict fashion icons sporting gorgeous saris and ornate jewellery. “Royal women post the 1920s and towards the 1940s began to gain wider publicity and became the precursor-celebrities to movie or sports stars. Their fashion statements were more visible. A lot of royal families were regular patrons of Western designers and jewellers,” shares Vijayakrishnan.
Go beyond the aesthetics, and the images start to hint at how the women reinvented the traditional, and embraced the modern. “It is a starting point for exploring the active roles played by women within the context of royal India. The images turn the spotlight on women as significant historical players,” adds Vijayakrishnan.
What: Maharanis: Women of Royal India
Where: At Saffronart, Industry Manor, third floor, Appasaheb Marathe Marg, Prabhadevi
When: From November 7 to November 20, 11am to 7pm (Monday to Saturday)
Call: 2436 4113