In the 19th century, the long-drawn-out process of being photographed in the growing number of studios provided plenty of time to decide on how a sari should be draped and a hand be positioned. Though tiring, the photographic ‘encounter’ had to be endured as for many clients, the new visual economy helped affirm a certain stage, a position within the life cycle. While it was usually men who visited photo studios, by the last decades of the century, family photographs and those of the conjugal couple became increasingly popular in growing urban spaces. A few women also had individual access to photographers, the earliest among them being the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, the redoubtable Sikander Begum, her family and Bibi Doolan, the wife of one of her ministers. In 1861, for her loyalty to the British during 1857, Sikander Begum was awarded the Star of India. In the same year, she enthusiastically welcomed James Waterhouse of the Bengal Artillery, a talented photographer, part of the team of officers and other professionals seconded by Governor General Canning to photograph the major groups and communities of India.
At that time, the 42-year-old Sikander Begum was the well-established second-in-line of female rulers of Bhopal. Relations with her husband were not cordial and the main difference apparently was over the Begum’s less than conventional use of purdah. Sikander Begum had interesting views, and, according to Shaharyar M. Khan, the biographer of the begums (The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India), ruled with the proverbial iron hand, went tiger-hunting, inspected troops, toured villages on horseback as well as commissioned a regular army and police force. As she had had the benefit of early education, the Begum was committed to the establishment of schools for girls. It is hardly surprising that this loyal subject set up a school for girls and called it Victoria School though, as Gouri Srivastava’s analysis of administrative reports (The Role of the Begums of Bhopal in Girls’ education) shows, school enrolments fluctuated. Clearly, as was true of many other parts of India, in these early years, it was not easy to get girls’ education on the private agenda of the average family. Undaunted, the Begum established Urdu and Hindi-medium schools in each pargana of the state, with the express instruction to officers to send their children to these schools. As for her daughter, Shah Jehan, English lessons as well as tuition in arithmetic were regularly scheduled. It is not surprising, then, that this self-confident and powerful woman would have no hesitation in allowing the camera into her palace.
When Waterhouse arrived in Bhopal, the state was celebrating its ruler’s recent award. Although she accepted the coveted Star of India, it was not before she had consulted her qazi on whether she could wear an ornament bearing the portrait of Victoria; the qazi decreed that this might indeed prove to be a distraction at prayer time. Duly cautioned, the Begum nevertheless wore the prized decoration on special occasions and was photographed wearing it with full ceremonial regalia. In The Waterhouse Albums — Central Indian Provinces, based on the extensive holdings of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi, London and New York and edited by John Falconer of the British Library, we are introduced to the wide range of Waterhouse’s oeuvre. On his photographic encounter with the royal ladies, Waterhouse writes:
“Her Highness the Begum [Sikander Begum] showed a most intelligent and friendly interest in the proceedings and knowing the difficulty there was for a European photographer to obtain photographs of native ladies, she dressed herself, her daughter and some of her ladies in different costumes so that I could photograph them. In order, however, not to offend the Mahomedan prejudices, all these photographs were taken in purdah, i.e. from behind a screen, so that I never actually saw my lady sitters but only photographed them, the lens of the camera projecting through the screen.”
And what amazing photographs he took without ever ‘seeing’ his subjects! It is interesting that though the actual photograph was taken without the man behind the camera having a direct view, the Begum obviously had no objection to the photographs being used, either in The People of India volumes or otherwise. In fact, aware that in a purdah society it would not be easy for the Englishman to gain access to too many women, she, together with her daughter, Shah Jehan, and Bibi Doolan posed for him in several different attires from their extensive wardrobes. Apart from his role of photographer, Waterhouse was a bit of a chronicler of women’s dress as all his photographs have detailed captions on what the ladies were wearing: in the Star of India portrait , for instance, she was wearing the “richly embroidered cap, insignia and collar of the Most Exalted Star of India, rich kincab jacket with soft feathers of fur round the collar and sleeves... under this she wears a rich flowered kincab angarkha (coat)” and very “loose Turkish trowsers [sic] with embroidered slippers [photograph].”
The portrait became the Frontispiece to the Begum’s candid account of her 1864 trip to Mecca, A Pilgrimage to Mecca by the Nawab Sikander Begum of Bhopal. This English translation by a Mrs Willoughby-Osborne was made available to the world in 1870 and provides an insight into the mind of the lady of strong opinions. Accompanied by her elderly mother, Begum Qudsia, who in her day had been the first Muslim woman ruler in the region, Sikander Begum in turn was the first Muslim ruler to perform Hajj. Sikander Begum found Jeddah “a desolate-looking city, very dirty and pervaded by unsavoury odours” and though in treeless Mecca the “moonlight is magnificent”, she noted disapprovingly the preponderance of beggars. She commented that it would appear as though “almost all the bad characters that have been driven out of India may be found in Mecca”. As for the ‘native’, her comments are no less acerbic — “In character the majority of the people are miserly, violent-tempered, hard-hearted and covetous, and they are both awkward and stupid.” Little wonder then that the local authorities were annoyed by the royal pilgrim’s observation that if she were in charge, she would bring about “a complete restoration” in civic amenities.
Apart from this photograph, the Begum allowed the use of several more taken by Waterhouse in her recollections of Mecca; that she was greatly appreciative of the camera as well as of the older and more established tradition of portrait-painting is evident in her response to the arrival of the artist, Louis Rousselet, at the court. Though she greeted him with a ritual breast-beating — her daughter, Shah Jehan, had been recently widowed — she ushered him into the young woman’s presence. Not only was Shah Jehan not in purdah and widow’s weeds, but rather she was resplendently dressed, and at her side hung “an elegant poniard with jeweled hilt”. Shaking hands with the visitors, she set up a date to pose for them a month hence when “she added, she would no longer be compelled to hide herself like a poor slave behind a straw curtain”. Apparently sensitive to Rousselet’s discomfiture, Sikander Begum conceded that she mourned her son-in-law as one would “a faithful friend and counselor”. But why would her daughter mourn — “Does the prisoner regret his gaoler?”
Hardly surprising then that Shah Jehan continued her mother’s strong rule, only to be succeeded by her daughter, Sultan Jehan, who wrote her memoirs in three volumes and became the first woman chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University. Both these rulers continued Sikander Begum’s commitment to visual representation, reaffirming the need to be ‘seen’ by a public far beyond their subject people. From the point of view of the expanding photographic world of those days, such portraits not only emboldened the portfolios of professionals but also provided an enduring visual dimension to remarkable women who ventured into the world beyond.