Dr. John Murray
The Arsenal and Pearl Mosque (detail)
Agra, circa 1858
Albumen print, 35.5 x 42.6 cm
The miraculous ability to capture light on a surface heralded a new era in image making. India was at the forefront of this process; the first cameras arrived in the subcontinent in 1840, just a year after their invention in Europe. Amateur photographers raced to capture India’s abundance of sacred sites, architecture, glorious landscapes and diverse people.
Prahlad Bubbar presents a selection of significant Indian photographs from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries. The exhibition explores the development of this new and revolutionary medium, highlighting the beauty with which India was recorded by early masters in the field.
One of the earliest images is a large albumen print by Dr. John Murray. A physician in the East India Company army, Murray arrived in India in 1833 and developed his skills during the 1850s, documenting the sublime grandeur of the Mughal monuments of Agra and Delhi. This image was taken at a politically significant moment, shortly after the Indian mutiny of 1857. It depicts perfectly formed pyramids of canon balls in front of the Pearl Mosque in Agra, in a striking juxtaposition of symbols of faith and war.
A photograph by the Nicholas brothers, known for their images of South India taken from 1855-85, conjures the drama and mystique of the carved colonnades of a South Indian Hindu temple. Khajuraho, the famed temple in Madhya Pradesh, is captured in an exquisite print by Raja Deen Dayal. Deen Dayal is India’s most celebrated 19th century photographer, who toured the country extensively, working for both the Indian and British elites, before being appointed as court photographer to the Nizam of Hyderabad.
As the 19th century progressed, so did the evolution of the photographic portrait, rivalling miniature painting as the primary medium for historical documentation and the presentation of power and prestige. An extremely fine and early photograph, also by Raja Deen Dayal, depicts the Maharaja of Bijawar and his court. Deen Dayal’s remarkable ability is evident in this image. The full pomp and regalia of the scene is captured with astonishing precision in this original albumen print, from the details of costume and jewellery to the expressions of the children in attendance.
A rare collection of images of the Holkars of Indore, a family known for their impeccable style, demonstrates the transition of court photography from the 19th into the 20th century. In a full-length portrait of Tukoji Rao Holkar III (r.1903-26), the Raja is the epitome of princely elegance, the drapery of his clothes reminiscent of early fashion photography. Another portrait of a group of women, including his wife, daughter and the famed socialite Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, captures their haunting beauty in the more theatrical, staged context of the photographer’s studio.
The exhibition concludes with Tukoji’s son, Yeshwantrao Holkar II (r.1926 – 1961), photographed by the legendary American artist Man Ray. Yeshwantrao was a great patron of the European avant-garde, commissioning work from designers such as Eckart Muthesius, Brancusi, Emile Jacque Ruhlmann and Le Corbusier. This elegant yet highly personal image provides a final glimpse of lost world of princely opulence and splendour.
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