In the India of the 1850s and ’60s, when photography was still to reach many in India, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur was an exception. Known for his forward-looking approach — including gifting the city its first art and craft college — Singh was distinct from his contemporaries in pursuing photography. Recognised as ‘India’s first photographer king’, he captured the country and its people. “We tried to cover different aspects of the works of this remarkable, little-known photographer,” says Giles Tillotson, consultant director at the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum in Jaipur. Along with Mrinalini Venkateswaran, museum consultant at City Palace in Jaipur, and Rahaab Allana, curator at Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, he has co-curated the exhibition “A Reflective Oeuvre”. On at Delhi’s Art Heritage gallery, the showcase explores Singh’s engagement with photography with 120 works.
Kept near the entrance are Singh’s works as a copyist, who would photograph other photographs, perhaps to test his skills and improvise his techniques. We see, among others, copy images of a print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and an oil painting of Lord Dufferin, Viceroy of India. There are also images of cabinet cards of Marchioness of Ripon (a British patron of arts) and a cabinet card depicting Singh’s successor, Kayam Singh. “It shows that he is experimenting with the very medium of photography… We give a sense of Ram Singh as an accomplished photographer but also someone who is experimenting with different kinds of approaches,” says Tillotson. He notes how one of the objectives of the exhibition is to make the photography of Singh better known to the public. Known among specialists in the history of Indian photography, Tillotson regards him as a major 19th-century Indian artist.
While there is no certainty if there was any singular impetus to Singh’s passion for photography, he did reportedly learn the art from British photographer T Murray when he was in Jaipur in 1860. “Singh did work with Murray but he was one among several other photographers whom he met and conversed with. For instance, he also met French photographer Louis Rousselet. When he became a member of the Bengal Photographic Society, he was also introduced to Eugene Impey, who was the British resident in Jodhpur and also a photographer. He recommended Singh to become a member of the Society… In the 1860s and ’70s, when Singh is working, almost everyone is experimenting, the process is developing very rapidly and the technology is changing,” says Tillotson. While the other royal courts were also patrons of photography, Singh, too, was a collector who owned large albums of Bourne & Shepherd, among others.
Juxtaposed alongside his prints are photographs of some of the other photographers of the time and Jaipur-based photographer Nandan Ghiya, who also works with vintage photographs. “Nandan uses history as an archive of information and there seems to be dialogue between him and Singh, a 21st-century artist and 19th-century artist. We thought it will be interesting to bring them together. Singh was an artist who was engaging with people around him and using photography as a medium, and Ghiya does the same,” says Tillotson.
Curated from a collection of over 2,000 photographs, one of the most unique and intriguing sections of the exhibition comprises photographs of the women from his zenana (section of the house where the women lived). These were some of the first photos taken of women during the British Raj, when the purdah practice was prevalent. “Though later that becomes a more accepted trait, he is very much a pioneer,” says Tillotson. Confident and well-dressed, the women are probably concubines. “They are not shy and the way they are posing suggests a very relaxed relationship between the photographer and the women,” notes Tillotson.
There is also the Maharaja himself — valiant on a horse, dressed plainly, and even of him meditating. For him, photograph was both an artistic pursuit as well as a documentation of the times, of the landscapes and the buildings that occupy the scene. “He is also interested in documenting what he is doing. Several photographs are of the buildings he had constructed and commissioned, and the gardens he had laid out, including the Ram Niwas Bagh and the General Hospital that he had commissioned. So, he is recording his own achievements and his own reign as well,” notes Tillotson.
The exhibition at Art Heritage Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam, Delhi, is on till September 18