|Saturday, December 22, 2001||
"AMAZING pictures!" The exclamation was repeated over and over and louder each time.
The Venue: Exhibition hall of the British Council at Delhi. The exhibition: Lafayetee Portraits, a display of photographs of the Indian royalty between 1897 and 1935. The presenters: Roli Books in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum of England.
About 50 black and white pictures were mounted on the walls. "One look and one is hooked," was a remark that aptly described the exhibition.
These framed images are a throwback on the lives of the royalty of a bygone era. Besides being thoroughly enchanting, they are a lesson in history, photography, aesthetics, providing a peep into the wardrobes and jewellery boxes of these royals.
Some of the most stunning pictures are those of the royalty of Punjab which includes Maharaja of Kapurthala, Sirdar Charanjit Singh, Rani Amrit Kaur Sahib of Mandi, Raja Ranbir Singh Bahadur of Jind, Princess Bamba Sophia Jindan (1869-1957) and Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh (1871-1942), the older daughters of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Punjab, as also a rare picture of Baba Khem Singh Bedi, the fourteenth spiritual head of the Sikhs and a direct descendent of Guru Nanak Dev.
Founded in 1880 in Dublin by James Stack Lauder, under the professional name of James Lafayette, Lafayette Studio boasts of an institutional memory that goes deep into history. The oldest photographic business in the world, it possesses pictures of a succession of kings, queens, viceroys, vicereines, spiritual leaders, business achievers and society ladies. Not to be left out, rulers and royalty from the princely states of India, too, ferried across the seven seas to this studio, specially for formal portraits.
After the liquidation of the studio in 1952, the company’s archive of negatives was stored in an attic where it lay forgotten until 1988 when the foreman of the decrepit building uncovered it. The negatives became a part of the annals of the National Portrait Gallery of England.
Prints developed from the collection were exhibited all over the world. And now, curator Russell Harris has brought a collection of portraits of the royalty of India in their ceremonial robes, to Delhi. According to Ratna Sahai, publishing manager of Roli Books, "This was a flagship exhibition. Now, spurred by the response, we intend taking to Jaipur and Chandigarh next, and then onto other locations all over India."
The collection is as captivating as it is intriguing. Small anecdotes, in some cases a remark or two from the descendents of the royalty have been included with the picture, making for interesting reading.
For example, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, Charanjit Singh, visited England in 1920, at which time his photograph was taken. The Court Circular of June 9, 1920 mentioned "Sirdar Charanjit Singh of Kapurthala gave a dinner party at Claridges Hotel last night to meet the secretary of State for India Mr Montagu. The Sirdar proposed their health in a short speech, to which Mr Montagu responded."
Then there is a picture of Princess Bamba Sophia Jindan (1869-1957) and Princess Catherine Hilda Duleep Singh (1871-1942), the older daughters of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of Punjab, who signed over the ownership of the Kohinoor diamond to the British.
The Princesses were born to Duleep Singh’s first wife, Maharani Bamba, daughter of a German banker and a Coptic Christian slave from Abyssinia. Duleep Singh spent most his life in England.
Princess Bamba Sophia died in Lahore, Pakistan, and claimed to be the real ruler of Punjab. Princess Catherine died unmarried and was so devoted to her German governess Fraulein Lina Schafer, that in her will she stated that one quarter of her ashes were to be buried as near as possible to Schafer’s grave. Image dates circa 1899.
When Raja Ajit Singh of Khetri attended Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897, he visited the Lafayette Studio and had many photographs taken against different backdrops and in various dresses.
The Illustrated London News, describing Raja Ajit Singh, said: "He personally administers the state and manages his six properties, one of which, yielding a rental of Rs 150,000, was granted to him by the British Government as a reward for the military services of his ancestors." The Raja was a good friend and an ardent disciple of Swami Vivekananda.
Then there is the picture of Rani Amrit Kaur Sahib of Mandi, the only daughter of Maharaja Sir Jagatjit Singh Bahadur of Kapurthala, by his third wife, Rani Prem Kaur, alias Anita Delgado, a ‘‘Flamenco dancer’ and dancing associate of Mata Hari, the spy. This surprising match and the ensuing wedding festivities in Spain gave rise to an expression still used to describe those seen to hitch their star towards climbing the social ladder — ‘as if they are getting married to a maharaja’.
During her visit to London, King George V and Queen Mary received the Rani before the third court of the season on June 26, 1924. Dressed up very few jewels, the Rani’s appearance contrasted sharply with that of her father who spent up to a quarter of his revenue annually buying swags of pearls and emeralds for himself.
One of the rarest pictures of the selection is that of Baba Khem Singh Bedi, who was the fourteenth spiritual head of the Sikhs by direct descent from the founder of their faith, Guru Nanak Dev. He did much to maintain the martial spirit of the Sikhs by encouraging recruits to join the various Sikh regiments. He gave away liberally for the purpose of education, and at least 50 schools were opened for boys and girls in Punjab with his help.
In 1883, on the occasion of his daughter’s wedding, he donated Rs 300,000 to religious and charitable causes. Half this amount was used to establish a college in Rawalpindi. This photograph was taken in 1902 when Baba Bedi was invited to England as an official representative of the Punjab at the Coronation of King Edward VII (image dates 1902).
Apart from the royalty of Punjab there are pictures of a number of other kings and queens. For example, the portrait of Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji bears remarkable resemblance to his descendent, cricketer Ajay Jadeja. Ranjitsinhji, like his legatee, is known for his cricketing skills and it was after him that the Ranji trophy was instituted. His second photograph captures him in his ceremonial dress and sword, with an emerald and diamond necklace embedded with emeralds in the world. Royalty at its opulent best.
Other than the Indian royalty, there are photographs of Queen Victoria in black after the death of Albert, the Prince Consort, Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the emperor and empress of India, Frederick John Napier Thesiger, the Viceroy of India between 1916 and 1921, and Lady Irwin in an exquisitely embroidered gown of crystals and sequins.
Once out of the main door of the British Council, when we turned to go back for one last look at the necklace that Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji was wearing, the guard — frisking us for the second time in the day — did look at us suspiciously. But it was worth the risk!
— Newsman Features