When photography arrived in India in the 19th century, it sparked off a rivalry between artists of traditional portraits and miniatures — who had just recovered from the deluge of commissioned European artists favoured by the Indian rulers — and those who practised photography. The uniqueness of this new medium lured many painters in royal courts to explore it. Some patrons such as the maharajas of Chamba, Benaras and Jaipur, and later the maharani of Kutch, became avid photographers themselves. The museologist, Pramod Kumar KG, set up what is perhaps India’s only archiving and cataloguing company today. His book, POSING FOR POSTERITY: ROYAL INDIAN PORTRAITS (Roli, Rs 1,975), documents early photographs of Indian royalty in a variety of poses. Most royal photographs were shot as portraits; many of them echoed the strict formality of court life. The faces and the body language of the young royals in particular reflected an underlying world-weariness.
The scope of Kumar’s work is extensive: apart from the portraits of rulers, both alone and with their ladies in their zenanas, his documentation includes photographs ranging from those of hunting queens and of page boys to King George V and Queen Mary. The facial expressions and physical bearings of the young page boys, selected from among rulers and children of rulers loyal to the British Crown, range from vulnerable to cocky, and the last speak of a confidence beyond their years. It must be said that most of the portraits of royal infants can lead to unpleasant flashbacks of the forced photographs of schooldays. Prince Bhupal Singh of Udaipur was photographed extensively during his childhood. His portrait in this book is almost eerie; his body is that of a child while the look in his eyes is piercing and calculated. But in this tome, Kumar has focused largely on the royals of north and west India. Photographs of northeastern royalty, barring one of Maharaja Thutob Namgyal of Sikkim and another of the maharani of Sikkim, are conspicuous by their absence. Southern royalty, such as a family portrait of the maharaja of Mysore and a photograph of Maharaja Moolam Thirunal of Travancore, is occasionally found in this book.
Left is a photoshoot done in 1930 of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala with the ladies of his family. Seated before the maharaja are two of his wives, Rani Vimal Kaur and Rani Yashoda Devi. The four other women are presumed to be his daughters. Top middle is a photograph — skilfully painted over by the artist, S.G. Thakkar Singh — of Maharana Bhupal Singh of Udaipur after a hunt. Bottom is another painted photograph of the winning Jodhpur polo team — consisting of Rao Raja Hanut Singh, Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur, Thakur Prithvi Singh Bera and Colonel Beatson — posing with the Kotah Cup in 1920. Top right shows a unique face-off between Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia of Gwalior and an unidentified European gentleman.