Rare reproductions from the archive of the City Palace Museum, Jaipur, reveal Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II’s early engagement with photography as India’s first known photographer king
The fact that a mid-19th century Maharaja of Jaipur – Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (r. 1835-1880) was one of India’s pioneering photographers, is something that was well known in his lifetime. It was later forgotten, only to be rediscovered about 100 years after his death, in the 1980s. Since then various specialists on the history of photography have looked at his work, but it is still not very widely known among the general public. Many people, for example, have heard of Raja Deen Dayal. By comparison, Sawai Ram Singh’s work is still obscure.
Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II was a real selfie-lover of his times, often presenting a visual autobiography, interspersed with snapshots of the world he saw: people, the city of Jaipur, women in the zenana section of his household, member of the royal household, wrestlers in an akhara and more. The Maharaja’s early engagement with photography as India’s first known photographer king is the most unexpected in this new selection. His work as a copyist, a photophile constantly testing his skill with reprography and emulation, is apparent in the quality of his portraiture and cityscape.
Emanating from the city of origin, a manifestation of this exhibition was mounted at Charles Correa, Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, in February this year. Some of the rare reproductions from the archive of the City Palace Museum, Jaipur, have come to the national capital in an exhibition titled, A Reflective Oeuvre. “We used the momentum generated in Jaipur, in a way, to pay homage to the city before coming to Delhi,” says Rahaab Allana, co-curator of the show, along with Giles Tillotson and Mrinalini Venkateswaran, in association with The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts at the Art Heritage Gallery.
The exhibition, on till September 18, is an ambitious project containing over 120 works by Sawai Ram Singh. “This landmark exhibition should be able to establish the reputation of Sawai Ram Singh as one of India’s major artists in the medium of photography,” says Giles Tillotson, who is also the consultant director of the City Palace Museum in Jaipur.
As a pioneering photographer, the Maharaja’s wealth of material from his studio and collection is part of learning and understanding the medium to know more about him and his photographic practice—and through that, about photography in nineteenth century India. “We have included images that are not necessarily ‘pretty’ but convey something about the photographic process. In our ‘digital age’ we forget the physicality of the photographic process, how easily a picture could be ruined. So we wanted to include images that we thought might offer hints about Sawai Ram Singh’s aesthetic vision and ideas—his experiments—as much as the finished products that testify to his abilities as a photographer,” shares Mrinalini Venkateswaran, museum consultant at the City Palace in Jaipur.
Another striking feature of the exhibition is the re-composed vintage works by Jaipur-based contemporary artist Nandan Ghiya. The images hold a repertoire of portraiture and urban documentation from the late nineteenth century through an interesting dialogue with contemporary photography, art and montages depicting the idea of identity and motives of digital culture. Some of his works have pixelated faces of the 19th century people that question the fluid identity of today’s world as much as history. Some have a perspective of history in a very analogical manner, some are self-reflective through discarded vintage photographs.