The 19th century was a difficult period for artists in India as the arrival of European painters and, in 1840, that of photography, meant the demise of their ateliers. Instances followed of the painter taking up the camera to turn photographer, though, mostly, “the painter embellished the photographic image by retouching the sepia tones with colour, thus anticipating colour photography nearly a century before it came into existence”, writes Pramod Kumar in the introduction to his delectable volume on royal Indian portraits — the first serious study in India of portrait photography. “It is almost as if in its first 150 years, photography was trying to substitute paintings at court,” he acknowledges.
If the book’s purpose was to invite, tease and provoke, Posing for Posterity does it well enough — with some of its “unidentified” (and presumably, some wrongly identified) portraits, for readers to debate, discuss and gloat over. There are pictures this reviewer can recognise, having in the past sourced them for what is now the Roli Books collection, but which, here, remain unfortunately unidentified. The book, then, is like a mesmerising puzzle, opening up to readers’ anecdotes and reminiscences, which might not have been the intent but adds to its appeal.
The pictures come from private collections as well as museum and library archives, but the largest cache is that of the Pictorial Archives of the Maharanas of Mewar, itself archived by Pramod Kumar. That accounts for several portraits of Bhupal Singh, including one of him with his shikar trophy that has been hand-tinted by well-known artist S G Thakkar Singh, who has filled in the background with one of his own landscape paintings.
While the Mewar pictures form a large chunk of the book’s portraits, there are more and enough of other unknown or lesser-known rulers, and states, that add to its interest. If that means fewer inclusions from the excellent Maharaja Ganga Singhji Trust in Bikaner, or even, indeed, of more portraits of the glamorous Gayatri Devi by celebrity photographers from the West, it is a small price to pay for the otherwise interesting choices where often multiple images reveal the way the subjects were photographed — young princes, for instance, positioned strategically atop a table; various versions of hand-coloured portraits for the selection of the final “correct” tint; and, often, several shots by photographers such as Raja Deen Dayal who photographed Anita Delgado of Kapurthala on a state visit to Hyderabad, different versions of which are in circulation, and one of which has been included in this book.
What a long journey it has been from the earliest portrait in the book dating back to 1850, and the zenanas where photography was conducted under female supervision, their negatives remaining in the zenana to prevent the accidental male gaze. The book gains from including these photographs, most interestingly a picture of the Maharaja of Jodhpur posing with his four wives. That one of those wives was an Udaipur princess, and the photograph itself was taken in Udaipur, might have been the reason for its having been taken in the first place. No doubt, the marriage of Bikaner princess Sushila Kumari, an ardent photographer herself, to the house of Mewar, strengthened that interest in zenana photography.
The portraits of the rulers resplendent “from the tops of their bejewelled, plumed turbans to the tips of their well-shod feet” were aimed at creating images for posterity, but with the camera’s ability to record their likeness, the princes were soon posing with their British guardians and European nannies, their pets and their shikar, in ceremonial dress and — especially in the case of royal women — in Western couture. The eclectically chosen portraits, in no order or chronology, allow a glimpse of an India recounted as much through those photographs as through captions that lift the shutter off the neglected face of archival photography in India.
POSING FOR POSTERITY
ROYAL INDIAN PORTRAITS
Author: Pramod Kumar K G
Price: Rs 1,975