A century of photographic and social history.
One of the earliest photographs of royal women in India — a formal portrait of the third Begum of Bhopal.
The Begums of Bhopal were some of the most enlightened female rulers, who ruled in their own legal and constitutional right for 150 years out of the kingdom’s 240-year-old existence. Overcoming the patriarchal structures of kingship, religious dogma and the social prejudices of the period, these women played extremely decisive, empowering and affective roles, unprecedented in Islamic political history.
In the tradition of visual representations
of royal hunts, several photographs of Maharanis posing with their kill exist to provide ample proof of their participation and skill.
Seen here is Maharani Tara Devi of Kashmir (formerly of Bijapur), nattily dressed in a pantsuit with tie and hat, posing seated on her prize. The Maharani, also photographed with the partridges on the right, may have preferred western suits while hunting - but the existence of several photographs prove that this was not at always the case, with Maharanis also hunting in saris and Indian garments.
With Western education, wearing European clothes became increasingly common among Indian royalty, although traditional headdress was sometimes retained. Whether or not in purdah, from the late nineteenth century onwards, Indian princesses began wearing Western garments and ordering their trousseaux in Europe.
For Indian royals, the ownership and use of Western goods were critically important in articulating modernity and success in the imperial system. Clothes occupied a particularly prominent role in projecting Western attitudes. Royals traveling to Europe noted that the sooner they adopted full Western dress, the sooner they were able to integrate into society.
Another photograph of Rani Yashoda Devi sporting the famed ruby and pearl necklace at the same shoot, at the Vandyk studios in London. The Maharaja, who often frequented Vandyk’s, is even said to have asked the legendary photographer to set up a studio at his palace in Patiala.
Vandyk is one of the frequently seen studio names in archives across the subcontinent, as royals from India began travelling abroad and comissioning portraits from the leading photographers and studios of the continent. Other commonly encountered names include the Lafayette Studio, Bassano, Dorothy Wilding and Madame Yevonda.
This photograph by Dorothy Wilding is of Indira Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar and former princess of Baroda. Renowned for her social graces and sartorial sense, she is credited with having set the trend of wearing silk chiffon saris, making it a royal fashion statement. Salvatore Ferragamo recalls her order in his autobiography for more than one hundred pairs of shoes, among them a pair made with pearls and diamonds supplied by the Maharani herself.
As the commissioning of European designers and traders by Indian royals, make complex the more singular ruler-ruled divisions of colonialism, the manner of appropriating and rejecting Western symbols further complicate easy understandings. For instance, the worldly and much travelled Indira Devi was well-accustomed to wearing Western forms of dress, and yet chose deliberately to appear bare-footed when paying homage to Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, in a display of her Indian heritage.
Though she is often recalled for her elegance and beauty, Indira Devi was as devoted to reforms (especially those of female empowerment) as her mother-in-law, Suniti Devi.
Maharani Suniti Devi, seen here, was the daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the founder of the Brahmo Samaj movement. Her broad and liberal outlook on life was only furthered in the royal family of Cooch Behar, considered to be one of the most Westernised royal houses in India at the time.
Formal photographs taken at studios in the 20th century were initially with elaborate backdrops and/or proscenium style theatre curtains, with women seen seated or leaning against studio props. Improved techniques of capturing light meant that effects of mood lighting were soon to be seen in photographs. Strategically placed shadows enhanced profiles and created flattering silhouettes.
Further, the props used in studios ranged from elaborate painted backdrops and curtains to architectural elements such as balustrades and pillars and interior and exterior views of grand palace edifices. Pieces of furniture, elaborate vases, books, clocks, object d’ art, painted screens and carpets were popular objects frequently seen in photographs.
Questions of representation in photographic portraiture were however, addressed not only through the use of painted backdrops and props but also darkroom techniques such as dodging or enlarging, and the practice of painting — partially or completely — directly over a photographic print.
This photograph with its added sketched architectural backdrop, for instance, is a fine example of the ways in which early photographic images were manipulated — often adorned, embellished and altered to construct particular images or add certain symbolic or material characteristics.
Another phenomenon that increased the scope of royal women being photographed was the appointment across India — from the 1880s onwards — of court photographers. Raja Deen Dayal at the Nizam’s court in Hyderabad, Mohanlal Photographer at Udaipur, K. L. Syed at Palanpur and Ramchandra Rao and Pratap Rao at Indore were among a host of court-affiliated photographic establishments.
These studios, especially the Deen Dayal studio in Hyderabad, were to soon provide lady photographers who could photograph women within closed conﬁnes and away from the male gaze. However, several all-male establishments continued to photograph royal women; the studio paraphernalia or just the camera and a backdrop frequently travelled to the zenana or the women’s quarters of the palace.
Rani Sita Devi, known as the Pearl of India and photographed here by Andre Durst, was one of the biggest icons of her time, and touted on every list of top fashionable personalities across the globe including Vogue.
Along with Gayatri Devi, she was one of the most celebrated muses of the time, and was photographed by several famous photographers, from Man Ray to Cecil Beaton.
Google Exhibit | Curation & Content: Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
References: Maharanis: Women of Royal India (Tasveer/Mapin, 2015) - Foreword by Nathaniel Gaskell & Abhishek Poddar with essays by Amin Jaffer, Pramod KG, Martand Singh & Shilpa Vijayakrishnan