Arts and Culture
Portraits of Indian royalty were an important subject for photographers in British India. These images followed European pictorial conventions and reflected the post-1857 feudal conception of British rule in India epitomized by Queen Victoria taking the title of Queen-Empress of India in 1877. Indian princes figured prominently in this vision. Seen as representative of the changeless order of traditional Indian society and thus as guarantors of British rule, they were safeguarded by Britain from challenges to their rule.
Thus ‘protected’ Indian sovereigns became perpetual ‘princes’ that were not allowed to use any title that suggested rulership. Their states were largely demilitarised and they were expected to run the internal affairs of their states along modern, rational European lines, yet were required to present a traditional public image and to attend public functions bejeweled and in highly ornate finery that set them apart from British officials. It is this public image that was perpetuated in princely portraits.
In this paper I examine how Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur (r.1835 – 1880), a keen amateur photographer, negotiated these contradictory expectations in his photographs which debunk the Oriental spectacle required of Indian princes by subverting the visual conventions of the day in ways resonant with the strategies of the European artistic avant-garde, and by using self-portraits to explore his identity in relation to sovereignty, modernity and Indian tradition, thus making a unique and radical contribution to the history of Indian photography that has been largely overlooked because of his amateur status.