University of Cambridge > > Visual Constructions of South Asia (2014-15) > The lens and the maharaja: The photographic remaking of Indian kingship in the late colonial period

The lens and the maharaja: The photographic remaking of Indian kingship in the late colonial period

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Annamaria Motrescu-Mayes.

The use of photographic portraiture as an instrument of colonial knowledge of the peoples of South Asia has been well-documented. While photography enabled colonial officials to “know the native”, Indians too embraced the medium. This presentation examines the relationship between one such group of Indians — the rulers of India’s understudied princely states — and photographic portraiture. At a time when Indian rulers faced complex demands on how they were to rule, live and behave from British administrators, Indian nationalists, court officials and subjects, how did rulers employ photography to respond to the often contradictory expectations of these audiences? The presentation answers this question through a single set of studio portraits of Maharaja Sayajirao III Gaekwar of Baroda, who ruled the leading state of western India from 1875 to 1939. This set of portraits, taken on 18 November 1919 in London, features the ruler repeating the exact same poses in two different formal outfits: the royal robe of a prince of western India and the morning suit of a gentleman. With this double presence in front of the lens, the Maharaja transgressed the well-established classification of Indian rulers as either traditional autocrats or Anglicised princes by depicting himself as both, allowing him to appeal to different audiences. Through an in-depth analysis of these portraits, set against the portraiture practices of contemporary Indian rulers, I argue that photography allowed them to fashion new princely selves. In the process, they created a new, mutable form of kingship for the late colonial period. As such, visual culture provides hitherto unexplored insights that advance our understanding of Indian kingship and, by extension, of power and authority in modern India.

This talk is part of the Visual Constructions of South Asia (2014-15) series.

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