A vintage collection of photographs of Indian maharajahs showcases the culture, customs of royalty of yore

The backs are stiff, the jewels positioned to capture their perfect symmetrical beauty and the expressions are incongruous, befitting their exalted highnesses. An exhibition titled The Constellation showcased 81 rare images of the erstwhile Indian royalty shot by the famous photographer Raja Deen Dayal.

Capturing the pride and pageantry of Indian Maharajas, these images shot from 1864-1905, give intriguing insights into the distinctive culture, fashion, jewels and photographic styles which existed then. The collection captures royalty from across the country, thereby giving us glimpses into the lifestyles which existed more than a century ago. The attention to detail given is astounding as the images capture many facets of the royal subjects, from the interiors of their grand palaces and parlours to thrones with majestic lions carved on them and even the daggers carried by the Maharajahs.

The images are from the collection of Krishna Moolagundam, an art connoisseur who shares, “I inherited about 70 percent of these images from my grandfather Moolagundam Basavaiah, a Sanskrit pundit and a collector of rare valuable books in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada. He was an ardent admirer of Raja Deen Dayal and I added to it in the last 10 years by combing private auctions and collections across the country.” The result is a stunning portmanteau of pictures of Indian royalty, perhaps one of the only one of its kind in India which shows the entire pantheon of Indian rulers.

 A vintage collection of photographs of Indian maharajahs showcases the culture, customs of royalty of yore

The Maharaja of Gwalior (L) and the Nawab of Balasinor. All images courtesy of Moolagundam Art Gallery

The art collector says that what makes this collection unique is that it showcases the complete extent of the extraordinary talent of Raja Deen Dayal. His mastery in capturing the gaze or mood of his subject is in full bloom here — from the frosty glare of the Maharaja of Chamba to the proud profile of the Maharaja of Gwalior and the arresting visage of the Raja of Faridkot, it captures personal traits of its subjects dexterously.

The images, uniformly sized at 9.5 * 7.5 inches, share fascinating stories. They help delineate the hierarchy present amongst the royals of the time. While the Houses of Travancore, Hyderabad, Udaipur, Jaipur and Hyderabad were permitted to wear robes with a golden star stitched on them, others were not granted the privilege, thereby signifying the different statuses accorded by the ruling British.

A prince among photographers

Photography was brought to India by the East India Company, in the 1850s, as a surveillance tool. Portraits of the natives began as a source of information and documentation but slowly the photographers began to take images of India’s rich monuments, flora and fauna. By the time Lala Deen Dayal started making a mark, photographers like the renowned Bourne & Shepherd of Calcutta and Simla, and Johnston & Hoffmann were established figures.

Dayal, a Jain from Sardanah near Meerut, produced a staggering output of 30,000 images in his lifetime and made his mark due to a prodigious mix of talent and legendary marketing skills. Being the court photographer of the Nizam helped him establish two lavish studios – one in Hyderabad and the other in Bombay.

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The Maharaja of Kolhapur (L) and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir

Bestowed the title of Musawwir Jung Raja Bahadur in 1892 thanks to his flattering portraits of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, he was also granted a royal warrant by the British, becoming photographer to Her Majesty the Queen cementing his status as India’s best-known photographer.

He used uncanny marketing tricks – like employing an Englishwoman as his assistant thus gaining access into the Nizam’s zenana or bringing out a guide, called Hints to Sitters which instructed his patrons on the correct way to dress and pose in front of a camera.

Gaining enviable admission into many a royal court, the current exhibition shows his inherent ability to innovate which catapulted him to the big league. Moolagundam exclaims, “From carbon blacking to smudging, there is so much to learn from his work, even today. Where he wanted to highlight the Maharajas he blurred the background, in other places he captures the mood of the palaces along with the subjects.”

Modern-day relevance

The collection of photographs showcase not only the popular kingdoms but also those of which little is known today – Jhina, Charkari, Sailana, Dhar, amongst others. The curator of the show, Priyanka Gupta, says that priceless nuggets of information can be gleaned from the pictures, “One can clearly see the European influences peeking in, from the thin-legged furniture from France to the refined jewellery in the later images towards the end of the 1800s. As one observes them carefully, one can see the different styles, techniques and fashion prevalent. For example, only the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir is wearing gloves, which shows that they were quick to adapt to European styles.”

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The Maharaja of Jodhpur (L) and Raja of Jhind

The collection also captures the famed 3D effect Raja Deen Dayal was celebrated for. With a combination of technology and use of natural resources like lighting, he is able to accentuate profiles, jewels, royal durbars and in some cases, the insignias of royal houses. Another interesting narrative is that of textiles, one can see the length and breadth of Indian textiles on offer – from the rich Banarsi brocades of the Maharajah of Hutwa in Bihar to the elegant Mysore silks down South, and the intricate embroidery on the Nawabs of Gujarat giving a glimpse of local weaves favoured.

Most images came with its casing in archival images intact while three of them were cleaned of stains and minor marks. Torn images were framed without restoration so as not to disturb their authenticity.

Gupta says that the images have immense archival value and adds, “They succeed in bringing out the personality of their subjects. For example, the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was the richest royal of the time is the only one to be pictured without any jewels. It was in tune with his personality which abhorred any expense or show of wealth. Another fascinating image is that of the Nawab of Balasinor near Gujarat who was just six-seven years old but his demeanour is extremely confident which really captures the pride of the Indian royal at its very essence.”

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 09:49:26 IST