Maharanis: Women of Royal India

A century of photographic and social history.

Portrait of Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala (1934) by Andre DurstMuseum of Art & Photography


Tales of Princely India have previously revolved mostly around the figure of the Maharaja, leaving shrouded in mystery the lives of the women of the royal household. Taking you behind the veil, through the lens of photography, this exhibit offers a peek at the enigmatic women of royal India, and their roles they played — in the public and private spheres — historically. Chronicling a century of photographic development and the representation of women, these photographs function both as socio-historical documents — a record of the cultural and social modalities of their time; and as notes of interrogation leading towards deeper inquiries, whether into gender debates, the complex relationship between Indian royal families and colonialism, or our conceptualisation of the past.  

Portrait of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, G.C.S.I., of Bhopa, Bourne & Shepherd Studios, 1877, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Maharani Tara Devi of Jammu and Kashmir (1946) by Mahatta and Co. SrinagarMuseum of Art & Photography

Functioning as documented history, photographs can point us towards the ways in which these women circumvented and reinvented the traditional,or embraced and reinvented the modern. For instance, photographs of Maharanis dressed in riding clothes, or western hunting safari suits,versus those in purdah, enable an understanding of the varying lines of acceptable social behaviour for royal women and how they were negotiated. This is further particularly highlighted by numerous photographs, that in an era of Anglophilic and Francophilic tendencies, feature royal Indian women in complete Western toilettes including tiaras and silk gloves.

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.

Maharani Tara Devi of Jammu and Kashmir, Mahatta and Co. Srinagar, 1946, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of Maharani Rani Kanari of Kapurthala, Sir (John) Benjamin Stone, 1905, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Princess Sudhira of Cooch Behar, Bassano Ltd, 1910, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of Rani Yashoda Devi of Patiala (Circa 1930) by Vandyk Studios, LondonMuseum of Art & Photography

Jewellery was at the forefront of the purchases made by Indian princes and princesses in Europe and plays a prominent role in photographs of Indian royalty. Maharajas and their wives were remarkably receptive to the work of European jewellers, and eagerly commissioned them to reset their precious stones in the latest Western styles, admiring the sparkle achieved by Western-cut diamonds.The importance placed on jewellery by Indian royalty and their appreciation of Western designs meant that they were ideal clients for European jewellers interested in expanding into overseas markets. Bhupinder Singh, for instance, commissioned the House of Cartier to create the famous ‘Patiala Necklace’, which ranks as the most expensive pieces of jewellery in the world, and contained over 2,930 diamonds, including the ‘De Beers’. Also made by Cartier for him, was the splendid ruby and pearl necklace worn by his wife, Rani Yashoda Devi, in this portrait taken by Vandyck Studios. 

Portrait of Rani Yashoda Devi of Patiala, Vandyk Studios, London, Circa 1930, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, née Shrimant Maharajkumari Indira Raje Gaekwad of Baroda, Dorothy Wilding, 1928, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar (or Koch Bihar), W & D Downey, London, Circa 1885, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani Lakshmivilasa Sannidhana Shri Pratapa Kumari Ammani Avaru of Mysore, formerly of Kathiawar (1900) by Barton, Son & Co., BangaloreMuseum of Art & Photography

For every royal lady who could not travel and consequently get photographed abroad, there was an Indian equivalent back home in nearly every region of the subcontinent. Professionally competent, these studios were largely patronised by the upper classes in India and many of them were situated in the larger cities of British India. Studios such as Bourne & Shepherd, Hamiltons or Kinsey soon became favoured destinations for royals from across the country, who needed to travel to the major cities for regular meetings with British administrators, as well as senior rulers and their entourages who did not travel outside India. 

Portrait of Princess Rafat Zamani Begum or the Bari Begum Sahiba of Rampur, formerly from the Najiabad family, Kinsey, Delhi, Circa 1960, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of Maharani Chinku Bai Raje Scindia of Gwalior, formerly of Satara., Unknown Photographer, 1891-1911, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of Maharani (and later Rajmata) Vijaya Raje Scindia, née Lekha Divyeshwari Devi of Gwalior, Hamilton Studios, Circa 1940, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani Kusum Kunwarba of Chhota Udepur, formerly of Rajpipla, Wilson Studios, Bombay, Circa 1930, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of the Maharani of Pratapgarh, Devare & Co. Studio, Bombay, 1900/1950, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of Maharani Chimnabai II of Baroda, née Shrimant Gajrabai Ghatge of Dewas Sr., Devare and Co., Bombay, Circa 1920, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Nawab Begum Sajida Sultan of Bhopal, also Begum of Pataudi, K. L. Sayed and Co. Palanpur, 1940, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani Sudarshan Prasad Kumariji Sahiba of Bikaner, K. L. Sayed and Co. Palanpur, 1940, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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Portrait of two unidentified royal women from Dewas (1900/1950) by Karkhanis & Khopkars Photographer BombayMuseum of Art & Photography

As a general rule, in terms of documented presence—whether in the physical form of photographs, or in terms of recorded information about their active social participation and developmental projects—women of the larger states receive relatively far more space. It is imperative to remember however, that even in the often overlooked smaller states, women were equally active participants in many spheres of political and social life, even if a constitutive record of the same is yet to be produced. In Dewas Junior, a significantly smaller state, one learns that petitioners (largely women) to the queen were as common as in Travancore, where the queen was held to be the matriarch of state.

Portraits of Rani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and Rani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore (Undated) by Unknown PhotographerMuseum of Art & Photography

Portrait of Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, Andre Durst, 1934, From the collection of: Museum of Art & Photography
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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.

Portrait of Maharani (and later Rajmata) Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, née Princess Ayesha of Cooch Behar (Circa1945) by Vivienne, LondonMuseum of Art & Photography


It is only fitting that an exhibit on the royal women of India, ends with a photograph of the most famous one of them all - Maharani Gayatri Devi. This princess of Cooch Behar who went on to become the Maharani of Jaipur, and the face of Indian royalty both nationally and internationally, also played a keen role in aff�ecting change in gender debates in India, and was in fact responsible for the ending of purdah in Jaipur. By existing simultaneously in these two worlds—as a larger than life, endlessly glamorous princess, as well as progressive political activist—Gayatri Devi exemplifies the often complex world of royal women in India that this exhibit hopes in some way to reveal. Her formal portraits consummate the romantic image of this period in Indian history, that the process of photography itself helped to create; yet when we scratch beneath the surface, we are rewarded by a deeper insight into a shifting period of history; both aesthetic and socio-political.

Credits: Story

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

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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