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Is that a photo or a painting?

An ongoing exhibition of 28 photographs of Maharajas in the early 20th century hark back to a time when the art form was nudging aside painting as a means to capture people's likenesses

At the ongoing exhibition 'A Journey into the time of Maharajas' at the art gallery ICIA House, a collection of 28 portraits of Maharajas in India during early 20th century, one photograph stands out amongst the rest. While all other photographs, given the period they were taken in, are black and white, one is in bright colours. Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur sits on a golden chair, his jet black robe and tuft of grey beard providing a striking visual contrast. There is also the red flooring, the green wall and the dark green curtain behind. Only when you take a closer look, will you realise that this is no colour photograph, but a black and white one that has been painted upon.


Raj Sahib of Dhrangadra

And this is exactly what makes this exhibition fascinating. The exhibition's subject is not so much the raja, as that particular period in Indian history when photography was slowly emerging as an art form and, in the case of the rajas, an alternative to the paint brush in capturing him in his grandeur.


Maharana Singh of Udaipur

However, photography was still at a nascent stage in the country, and to keep the Maharajas happy, patrons of the art painted many of the black and white portraits, so as to appeal to the subject's demands for vibrant palettes. In the collection, there are four photographs, which have been painted upon.


Raj Sahib of Dhrangadra

Unlike the photo of Maharana Fateh Singh which has completely been painted upon, the other three have only light touch ups, to enhance certain details. For instance, in the photograph of Maharaja Brijraj Singh of Kota, the curtain behind the subject has been touched upon to bring out its detail.

Nathaniel Gaskell, Director and Art Curator, Tasveer Arts, which is organising the exhibition along with Vacheron Constantin, says, "Photography was undergoing an interesting moment in India in those times. It arrived in the country within a few months of the invention of the paper negative (in England in 1839). Many commercial studios had popped up in major cities, whilst nomadic 'photo booths' travelled to the bazaars of smaller towns."

According to Gaskell, these studios began producing photographic portraits of India's prosperous mercantile and professional classes, and those of Maharajas and princes. By the beginning of the twentieth century, portriature in India was undergoing great change, whereby the camera, not the brush, was becoming the tool of choice for capturing people's likenesses.

"Photos like these, of kings and princes from those times, are spread out across the world, in galleries, auction houses and people's homes. No one has seen such a large number under one roof," says Gaskell.

At: ICIA House, 22 / 26, K Dubhash Marg, Kala Ghoda
Call: 22048138
Till: October 29

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