Excerpt: Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia

ByMrinalini Venkateswaran
Feb 23, 2023 07:32 PM IST

This edited extract from Mrinalini Venkateswara’s essay featured in a new book on photography in the Indian subcontinent looks at the accomplished work of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a renaissance in princely India. Notable figures brought new energy to their roles as the leaders and protectors of their people. Reform, modernization and improvement were the mantras, espoused and delivered with zeal. It was also a rapidly changing world with industrialization and the invention of new technologies, especially those related to communication and – given colonial proclivities – documentation. The closer, sometimes enforced, contact with Europe and the rest of the world was an enormous stimulus, and borne in with the tide was the wondrous new technology of photography; literally, “writing with light”.

Self portrait: Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur (From Unframed) PREMIUM
Self portrait: Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur (From Unframed)

Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur was born in 1834 at the start of these changing times. He was “rediscovered” as a photographer a hundred years after his death in 1880. The collection of prints, glass plate negatives, and camera equipment associated with him are now held by the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum Trust, established by his descendants to care for and share Jaipur’s artistic and cultural legacy...

The View From the Tasveerkhana, c. 1870 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II)
The View From the Tasveerkhana, c. 1870 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II)

Sawai Ram Singh and His Practice of Photography

The story of Sawai Ram Singh of Jaipur’s first encounter with photography is uncertain. In a 1985 Museum publication, the then Keeper Yaduendra Sahai suggests that the photographer T Murray’s visit to Jaipur in 1864 provided the impetus, with an earlier meeting in Simla setting the scene. Murray is believed to have returned to Jaipur several times, even being appointed court photographer. Photography historian John Falconer also states that the Maharaja employed T Murray in this role. In a later publication however, Sahai surmises that Sawai Ram Singh was familiar with photography from the 1850s. Although he does not share his evidence, other sources allow for the possibility...

Captain Eugene C Impey (1830-1904), an early, little-known photographer in India, may have also had a role to play. Beginning his career in the Army, he soon elected for a political appointment, and between 1856-1878 he served at Mount Abu, Alwar, Simla, Marwar (Jodhpur), Mewar (Udaipur), and possibly Gwalior, before retiring after a brief stint in Nepal. He was an active photographer throughout most of this period, and may have... shared his passion for photography at the many courts he visited... it was Impey who, as a member of the Bengal Photographic Society’s committee, proposed the name of “His Highness the Mahrajah of Jeypore, KSI” for membership 1865. Sawai Ram Singh became a Life Member, and the regular receipt of the Society’s Journal (included in the membership benefits) would have enabled him to deepen his knowledge and practice.

A member of an established Anglo-Indian family, Impey... hosted Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838-1904)... during Prinsep’s tour of India in connection with the Imperial Assemblage of 1877 (organized at Delhi by the Viceroy, Lord Lytton, to commemorate Queen Victoria’s assuming the title “Empress of India” in 1876). Prinsep... managed to obtain photographs of many of the rulers who attended the event, and travelled to the home states of others to finish the job. Jaipur was, of course, on Prinsep’s itinerary. He recorded being shown to the “comfortable room, where the Maharaja spends his leisure time photographing”, whose windows overlooked “a charming garden”. Thomas Holbein Hendley (1847-1917) later identified the location as the Madho Niwas, noting, “Above the drawing room are the photography rooms”.

The Maharaja’s Boat at Tal Katora, c.1875 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s studio)
The Maharaja’s Boat at Tal Katora, c.1875 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s studio)

...There is further, concrete, evidence of his (Sawai Ram Singh’s) commitment to photography in the form of a diary, written in Dhundhari, which he maintained for a short seven months (1 January-4 August) in 1870. Begun in Calcutta during the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit, it ends abruptly in Jaipur. In it, he noted each day’s highlights in bullet-point style...

Extrapolated over his lifetime, the diary entries demonstrate a significant commitment of time and resources... These details, combined with his travels, his membership of the Bengal Photographic Society, and discussions with knowledgeable amateur peers such as Louis Rousselet, are incontrovertible proof that photography was a passion for Sawai Ram Singh.

Reading Sawai Ram Singh’s Practice

Sawai Ram Singh’s practice of photography included collecting it...

The photographic prints from the time of Sawai Ram Singh extant today in the Museum’s collection are all albumen prints (the dominant print technology of the time) contained in albums...

The glass-plate negatives associated with Sawai Ram Singh appear to have multiple authors, though in the main they were the work of the Maharaja or his “studio” – ie taken by or with assistants, both indoors and outdoors. A few plates have the names and negative reference numbers of Murray, Bourne, and Saché scratched onto their surfaces. ..

...we may speculate that the Maharaja collected negatives (either through purchase, or received as gifts) just as he did prints and albums... They are primarily wet collodion plates, which was the dominant technology in use from the 1850s-1880s...

So, what, or whom, do we see in these negatives? The bulk of them are portraits. They show South Asian men (fellow rulers, courtiers, palace functionaries) and women...; and foreign men (including distinguished visitors), women, children, and families. The Maharaja’s self-portraits, taken at various stages in his life, and portraying him in a number of ways, are a notable subset. Some of these images – because they are uncropped negatives – also show the backdrop and the room beyond, offering tantalizing if frustrating clues on the interiors of his studio(s). Others show Sawai Ram Singh’s assistants, artlessly peering from behind the curtain, and the most charming photographs star his pet dogs. There are numerous landscapes of Jaipur and Amber, and further afield such as Delhi, Agra, Simla, Lucknow and Benares. Art objects such as reproductions of paintings and sculptures, sword hilts, horses, and other animals are also featured.

Foundation Laying of the Albert Hall Museum During the Prince of Wales’ Visit in 1876 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s studio)
Foundation Laying of the Albert Hall Museum During the Prince of Wales’ Visit in 1876 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s studio)

Much has survived of Sawai Ram Singh’s equipment, most appearing to date from the 1860s, when he was well into his photographic practice. Established European firms such as G Knight, J Spencer, and JH Dallmeyer are represented, as is the German firm of Voigtlander & Sohn, famous for its lenses. Some of the pieces are a fraction less well assembled and finished, leading one to speculate on their being either local copies of existing equipment, or perhaps even experimental apparatuses made to the Maharaja’s specifications...

The prince’s self-portraits, and the photographs of “his” women have excited great scholarly interest. They have been interpreted as evidence of performative art, as modes of dissent, as a project to ‘rehabilitate’ the negative British stereotype of the zenana, as well as unusual or bold acts of agency by both the Maharaja and the women. He seems not to have photographed any of his queens. But that he photographed so many women, and that he found them “fit for purpose” as photographic subjects, is unusual for this period. Nothing comparable has emerged from any other contemporary Indian court. It is easy to dismiss this as opportunism or irrelevance, since, after all, the women were his subjects to command. But as many commentators have noted of the “zenana” portraits, and the others we can attribute to Sawai Ram Singh with confidence, what makes them remarkable is his seeming ability to connect with and portray his sitters as individuals rather than “types”. In the case of the portraits of male courtiers, at least some of whom are nobles, this may be explained by the fact that the Rajput clan structure placed the Maharaja as “first among equals” rather than as overlord; the possible reasons are less obvious for others. We do not know whether there was any patronage or interest from within the zenana, in contrast with the Tripura court (where Maharaja Birchandra taught photography to his young queen), or when set against the wider narrative of Rajput women as collectors and owners of property in their own right. Sawai Ram Singh did note that the women were not always compliant – he complained that some prints were spoilt as they were made in a hurry. But many remarkable images show these subjects gazing fearlessly and directly at the camera, including a rare few in which a woman is dressed in male garments, or stands proud with “traditionally male” accessories such as a sword...

How many images were printed? What other images were originally in the collection? Were any of Sawai Ram Singh’s portraits (whether by himself or by others) ever personal possessions of the women, or worn on their person as jewellery?... We do not yet have the answers.

Sawai Ram Singh does appear to have submitted work for public viewing (and therefore, wider consumption), though only one instance has so far come to light: the All India Photographic Exhibition of 1864 at Calcutta, to which he sent a portrait and a self-portrait that were well-received. His self-portrait in particular, the December issue of the Journal of the Bengal Photographic Society commented, was ‘successful for clearness and brilliancy... we trust that His Highness will become a constant exhibitor’.

In contrast to his images of his court, Sawai Ram Singh’s photographs of foreign men and women, aside from those that were souvenirs of meetings, are almost like his own album of “types” comparable to The People of India series. They may be read as a form of ‘mimicry’ perhaps, but the precise way in which Sawai Ram Singh’s series subverted a colonial agenda or gaze remains to be analyzed and fleshed out. They are all composed in the conventional studio portrait format central to the photographic vocabulary of the time, but against his own painted backdrops. Within Jaipur, he was making a number of “documentary” style pictures, recording his legacy of infrastructural projects such as streets with gas lighting, the Ram Niwas public gardens, the laying of the foundation of the Albert Hall Museum, and the clock-tower within the City Palace complex that regulated Jaipur’s hours. These photographs of “modern” projects beg to be interpreted as Sawai Ram Singh’s answer to the imperialist agendas of British photographers, often keen to showcase the “civilizing achievements” of Empire. Rahaab Allana has interpreted them as autobiographical, and revealing of the Maharaja’s ‘self-reflective’ persona.

Butterflies on a Board, c. 1870 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II)
Butterflies on a Board, c. 1870 (Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II)

Because the agency and intentions of Indian practitioners of photography of the nineteenth century are yet to be fully explored, there remains room for us to rethink our ideas. For that, it is also vital to embed Sawai Ram Singh the photographer in his historical context, and in the wider media and visual culture of his time.

Locating Sawai Ram Singh’s Practice

...I now return to the challenging question of what motivated Sawai Ram Singh to photograph, and why photography became so popular in nineteenth-century India. Various answers have been advanced, including the compulsions of the British artistic movement of the picturesque (for which India offered the ‘perfect’ subject matter); the twin seductions of ‘modernity’ and technology; British colonial and imperialist claims of ownership over landscapes and history; control over knowledge production and interpretation; and border security. But are these answers as applicable to princely India as they might be to British-ruled India?

In other words, when Sawai Ram Singh composed a photograph in the picturesque mode, for example in the manner of Samuel Bourne, what was he thinking? One of his images of the ruined residency at Lucknow is an almost identical composition to the famous Bourne image of that building. Indeed, Sawai Ram Singh seems to have undertaken a “Mutiny tour” much like all visiting British photographers in the 1860s and 1870s, producing similar images of spaces that remained emotionally charged for the British long after the violence of 1857. What responses did it provoke in him?...

Rhetoric from the British, Indian nationalist politicians, and later, the scholarly community has, until recently, dismissed the princes for the ‘hollowness’ of their crowns following the advent of British rule in India. Portrayed as an ineffective and self-aggrandizing class with no real authority, any “innovation”, or “modernization” attributed to native rulers has tended to be played down as “copycat” behaviour. But more recent work has recognized the tremendous skill with which at least some princes deployed theirpatronage and sovereignty, exercising their agency through ‘mimicry’ if necessary; and even using photography to their advantage.

There is robust evidence of Sawai Ram Singh’s ability to negotiate with the British administration using a number of these tactics, gaining for himself the position of premier prince of Rajputana (notwithstanding the Maharana of Mewar, who was the senior royal), and an enviable position for his state within India, the Empire, and the globe. The Maharaja School of Arts that he established in 1866 at Jaipur to promote the industrial arts was the first outside British India to teach photography, introduced within the curriculum in 1870. He also initiated the major project of a new museum that showcased the arts and crafts of Jaipur and India (although he died before its completion). This prompted the staging of the Jeypore Exhibition of 1883, whose core collection of objects was further augmented towards the creation of the Albert Hall Museum (which opened on 21 February 1887). In both cases, photography featured prominently...

Princely India did not exist in isolation from British-ruled India, notwithstanding academic tendencies to study them that way. So far, contemporary scholarship has pieced together individual photographers’ careers or a collection’s history; begun to analyze contexts of production and consumption; or produced compelling regional histories. For deeper and fresh insights, we need greater imagination as well as methodological rigour: to envision a network of practitioners and consumers, spanning the subcontinent’s geography, its class structure and other hierarchies, and its diverse histories. We have yet to tease out the range of possibilities that photography offers for the critical task of subverting and reinterpreting dominant historical narratives (whatever they may be); and in articulating creativity, agency, and an indigenous modernity in colonial India.

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, June 06, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals