As a living palace, the Udaipur city palace forms the Mewar region’s, cultural heart. This is reflected in the riches ranging from miniature portraits to rare textiles, jade collections, and arms and armoury, which the palace museum is bursting at the seams with.
Even in the portmanteau of treasures present, its collection of painted photographs stands out for their historical relevance, brilliant execution, and intriguing story. Visitors who admire the images (around eighteen) at the exhibition at the Fateh Niwas Gallery in the city palace museum, administered by the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF), often do a double take, wondering if the images are photographs or paintings. Around 250 pictures from the 1850s survive at the palace, each sharing a story of its own.
The advent of photography in India around the 1840s was a turning point in the visual history of the subcontinent. Mewar embraced this new technique with the utmost eagerness and even some innovation. Interestingly, historical research even suggests that in 1818, almost 20 years before the arrival of the camera in India, its precursor, the camera obscura was already in use in Udaipur. The earliest pieces can be dated from 1865 onwards under the reign of Maharana Shambhu Singh (r. 1861 – 1874 CE), right up to the first half of the late 20th century under the reign of Maharana Bhagwat Singh Mewar of Udaipur (r. 1955 – 1984 CE). The subjects covered in painted photographs were primarily portraits but included court proceedings scenes.
The Change For A Future
The rich home-grown painting traditions of the Indian subcontinent were already affected by the arrival of European artists, from the 18th century onwards, due to changing aesthetics and sensibilities. In this scenario, the advent of photography marked another major diversion in visual vocabulary. The miniature artists of the region had to be sustained in alternate ways without negating the new winds of change.
Besides, the gradual development of the photographic processes also meant that the images produced in the early stages displayed some shortcomings which could use aesthetic enhancement. Painting over the photograph was often an attempt to hide these faults and render a sharper and clearer image.
Colour was applied to the painted photographs in several ways – the most common was the application of paint directly on the photograph’s surface. Or, it could be achieved by directly coating photo-sensitive material on tinted paper to produce an overall-coloured effect. The painting was also used to highlight attractive details, such as the sparkle of a jewel or the folds of a garment. In later years, more liberty was taken by adding even newer details, such as rich textiles or props. Sometimes, even completely fictional backdrops were created, radically transforming the image. Bhupendra Singh Auwa, Administrator in Chief of the MMCF, says, “The application of paint over a photograph served the purpose of enhancing the realistic appearance of the scene captured, bringing it closer to the world as seen in colour at a time when the photographic processes were largely monochrome.”
With the vast potential of painted photographs before them, the artists of Mewar became instrumental in a seamless amalgamation of painting and photography. The finesse with which native artists accomplished the minute details on oversized paintings enabled them to engage this expertise in adding colour to the fine details of a photograph, too.
With the process gaining popularity, there were several examples of local artists engaging in photography and even photographers advertising themselves as artists and photographers. One notable example is that of court painter Tara, whose sons Mohanlal and Shivalal took up the camera and brush, respectively. The Udaipur collection has several painted photographs worked on jointly by the brothers.
Preserve And Proceed
Although the painted photograph techniques have faded out with further developments in photographic processes in the 20th century, it marked the transition phase of capturing the world as we see, from brush to camera. Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, Trustee, MMCF, states, “The artists celebrate their love for colours by giving life to monochrome prints with their craft. This style holds a very significant spot in that time. This collection is of special value to us as it beautifully captures the mood of that era.” As essential pieces of our history and a process long gone, these artworks hold immense value to us collectively. Innovative methods to integrate older art traditions with newer demands may be the way forward, as is demonstrated by the example of painted photographs so many years ago.