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Wednesday, Nov 13, 2019

Not just a maharaja: Sawai Ram Singh II’s photographs prove how he was an artist capturing moments for posterity

An ongoing exhibition in New Delhi reveals Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s photography skills as India’s first-known photographer-king.

art-and-culture Updated: Sep 03, 2019 14:24 IST
Saumya Sharma
Saumya Sharma
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II: Self-portrait with folded arms.
Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II: Self-portrait with folded arms. (Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace, Jaipur/ACP)

An ongoing exhibition in New Delhi reveals Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s photography skills as India’s first-known photographer-king. The photos at this exhibition - some self-portraits, some of the members of his courthouse, have been in the archives of the City Palace Museum, Jaipur. The show is titled A Reflective Oeuvre, which opened at the Art Heritage gallery on World Photography Day, August 19. The exhibition is a collaborative effort between Art Heritage Gallery, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum and The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

Unseen works from the archives of Jaipur’s City Palace Museum have been meticulously preserved and digitised over the last several years under the supervision of the museum’s curator, Giles Tillotson. “We’re seeking to get the photography of Sawai Ram Singh II better known, to a larger audience through collaborations, both small and more ambitious ones,” said Tillotson.

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Deft with the camera, Sawai Ram Singh (1833-1880) captured the landscape and urban imagery, the studied replication of art objects, and the depiction of the women and men of the court. Sawai Ram Singh was “not just a maharaja who happened to have a camera documenting people from his court, he was an artist,” Giles continues.

The selections made for this exhibition, a whopping 2000+ glass plate negatives, present the work of a practitioner who constantly manoeuvres between the image as a private and public statement, as we move from an ‘akhara’, a tropical greenhouse, and the palace garden to other, more formal subjects.

The exhibition also throws light on Sawai Ram Singh’s work as a copyist, a photography aficionado constantly testing his skill with reprography and emulation. The exhibition also features re-composed vintage works of Nandan Ghiya, a Jaipur-based contemporary artist.


In a conversation with Giles Tillotson, he reveals how they found diary entries showing that Sawai Ram Singh met various photographers, collected other people’s photographs and negatives. There are also records of photographs taken by him of other photographs or photographing photographs taken by other photographers.

Explaining glass plate negatives, one of the earliest technologies in photography, he says, “With any collection, you want to have a photographic record, sadly the worst thing you can do is to touch negatives. Glass plates are really fragile. Having a digital version means it’s a lot easier to put it on a screen. When these were first discovered in the 1980s, there was no digital technology so the solution was to print them. However, this contained a smaller number and the audience or the art enthusiasts could then only see the pictures through the eyes of the curator of that period.”

We wanted to know if these negatives were printed in their original form or were they cleaned or rid of any scratches? Tillotson says, “sometimes we take scratches out, sometimes leave them as it is. It’s a curatorial decision.”

Interestingly, we also learnt about the exposure of photographs and why some faces were blurred. “Exposure could take 2-3 seconds so if you’re moving, the face is blurred.”

The exhibition is on until September 18, 2019. You can also opt for a guided tour around the gallery, where Rahaab Allana of the Alkazi Foundation will explain the choice of negatives that made it to the exhibition and more.

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