Nobles at court

09 July 2016

Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II ruled Jaipur from 1835 to 1880. He had a passion for photography that was reflected by the range of images he created, particularly the portraits, which straddled the hierarchy of his court. The images suggest the documentary nature of the collection, a drive to record everything with the new camera technology. Such an effort to capture the people and spirit of the times was not new in Jaipur, for a similar exercise was undertaken by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II who ruled from 1699 to 1743, and his immediate successors, albeit using pigment and paper. The resulting works recorded the nobles and grandees of the court, anonymous women, and junior functionaries such as tailors. They were perhaps commissioned to mark the establishment of the new court at Jaipur; just as these appear to mark the advent of a technological era. Although we can only guess at the sitters’ roles and personalities—their names are unrecorded—this striking group of portraits offers a glimpse into the world surrounding the Maharaja.

A large number of the photographic portraits taken by Ram Singh depict pardayats or concubines, residents of the palace zenana—the section set aside for the seclusion of women. While all of his work is remarkable—as the work of a photographer of his time and status—these images of women are unique, affording us an unrivalled glimpse behind the purdah of a nineteenth-century Rajput zenana. The women pictured normally led a life of seclusion, shielded from the public eye. Ram Singh’s portraits afford ample evidence of their dress and jewellery, and offer clues about their religious leanings and leisure pursuits.

The above images have been taken from Paintings & Photography at the Jaipur Court by Niyogi Books and edited by Mrinalini Venkateswaran and Giles Tillotson.

Vivek Gopal Vivek Gopal is an assistant editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: Jaipur photo essay art history