Curated by Giles Tillotson, Mrinalini Venkateswaran, Rahaab Allana
Every form which is traced by light is the impress of one moment, or one hour, or one age in the great passage of time … Lady Elizabeth Eastlake (1857)
In the oeuvre of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (1834-1880), we witness the ‘I’ revealed by the eye. As part of the larger exposition titled Ellipsis: Between Word & Image, this section of the exhibition presented previously unseen works from the archive of the City Palace Museum (Jaipur) that have been meticulously preserved and digitised over the last several years. The photographs chart Sawai Ram Singh’s assiduous engagement with photography as reportage and experimentation – as information and allegory – through his adept copying, portrait making, and urban documentation. Sawai Ram Singh’s unwavering skill with the camera is demonstrated through his landscape and urban imagery, the studied replication of art objects, and the depiction of the women and men of the court, all of which eventually reveals a self-reflective persona, able to respond with circumspection and compassion to his surroundings and subjects.
Most curious and unexpected in this new selection, was Sawai Ram Singh’s work as a copyist, a ‘photophile’ constantly testing his skill with reprography and emulation, which eventually informs the creative departures we see in the quality of his portraiture and cityscape work. Always the observer – reproducing Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Victorian busts, masonic emblems and other objects – he offers a visual counterpart to the interior images of the French author Émile Zola (1840-1902), as well as to the English fantasy writer Lewis Carroll’s early piece entitled ‘Photography Extraordinary’ (1855), which offered the possibility of photographing literature for dissemination.
The selections in this exhibition presented the work of a practitioner who constantly manoeuvred between the image as a private and public statement, as we move from an akhara, a tropical greenhouse, and the palace garden to other, more formal subjects. His images invite a dual reading: of photography as a discursive interest and as fictional performances or enactments by his courtiers and himself. Sawai Ram Singh’s photography may be investigated now for its citations or reference points to his own interests in image-making that are far removed from mere illustration, but it is rather the ‘signature’ of someone who seems to be assembling a creative, visual autobiography. His images make us ask whether early photography in Jaipur was the appropriation or culmination of various traditions of art from the court. Are they ethnographic studies, or do they in fact reveal a fraught and collusive relationship between colonialism, regionalism, and modernity?