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Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

Rare photographs procured from photography dealers, auction houses and art fairs from around the world are part of a photography exhibition titled Maharajas

The figure of the maharaja remains a compelling one in the pages of Indian history. Like royalty elsewhere in the world, he symbolised the imagined aspirations of his people: money, power and freedom. "When thinking about what kind of historical photographs to display, it seemed logical to focus on the Maharajas, whose portraits are amongst the most sought after vintage photographs for collectors," said co-curator Nathaniel Gaskell in an email interview.


The Prince of Bansda; photographer unknown; image courtesy Tasveer

The photography exhibition titled Maharajas, which opens today, comprises a collection of 28 photographs taken between 1890 and 1930. The Maharaja of Porbandar, Raja Sir Joginder Sen Bahadur of Mandi, The Nawab of Palitana and Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar of Indore are some of the portraits in the series.


Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur; photographer unknown; courtesy
Tasveer


"We made the selection based on a combination of the subject matter and the condition of the print, as well as trying to cover a whole range of people and not wanting to have more than one portrait of the same person," says Gaskell.

The photographs had a big role to play in public perception. The portraits were often signed and given to members of the sitters' extended families to put up in their houses. "They were taken for much the same reasons people have their portraits taken today -- partly for documentation, partly for sharing and partly for vanity."

The significance of the photographs is because they allow us to glimpse a time from the past believes Gaskell. "Be it the dichotomy between westernisation and tradition as shown in their dress, an interest in the jewels they're wearing, or a documentation of the lives of the sitters themselves, there is a whole range of ways to respond to the images."

The missing maharanis
The fact that there might be no photographic records of the maharanis is possibly a wider comment on patriarchy. "I am not personally aware of such photographs, though I am sure some must exist. However, such photographs must be very rare, as I can't find any in auction records or in the inventory of specialist photography dealers who specialise in Indian material."

"This painted photograph perfectly reflects the transitional period in portraiture between the mediums of painting and photography. Studios and patrons were interested in exploiting photography as a replacement to painting, but they adopted many of the latter's visual devices as a means of legitimising this new art form -- not quite ready to let go of the past.

In the process they created these wonderful photo-paintings. Similar to Mughal schools of painting, the photographic studios that produced such images created workshops (kharkhanas) and employed artists to paint directly on to the photographs -- appealing to their patron's demands for vibrant palettes and creating a wonderful hybrid form of photography.

This photograph of Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur is a particularly splendid example. What makes this photograph even more special is that while a normal photograph can be printed various times, these painted photographs were unique -- made so by the personal hand-painted touch of the artist."
- Nathaniel Gaskell, co-curator

From: Today, 11 am to 6 pm
Till: October 29; Sundays closed
At: ICIA House, 22/ 26, K Dubhash Marg, Kala Ghoda.

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