Image and Narrative points contributed by Vivek Dev Burman, Agartala & Kolkata
While clearing a godown in our house in 2015, I chanced upon a wooden box with a sliding cover. On close inspection, it contained ten 10”x12” B&W glass negatives photographed between c. 1897 to 1910, covered in cobwebs and fungus. It turned out to be part of my grandfather’s photographic portfolio. My grandfather, Maharajkumar Brajendra Kishore Dev Burman of Tripura was an avid photographer and a gadget freak.
Up until now only few prints of my grandfather’s early work existed and had never before been seen or mentioned outside of immediate family. But discovering these negatives revealed a whole different level of quality and scope than what we had seen before. Later I discovered 36 more glass negatives, dated c.1890-1925, in cupboards wrapped up in newsprint, albeit not in very good condition.
This is a photograph of my grand-uncle Maharaja Birendra Kishore taken by my grandfather, his brother, Brajendra Kishore, a year after my grand-uncle became the King of Tripura. They were both 24 years old. My grand-uncle was born in 1883, just 3 months before my grandfather (their mothers were sisters). He was a gifted painter, singer and songwriter. The painting you see on the left,‘The Hermit’, was his adaptation of Job (1880) by Léon Bonnat, an Italian painter. In those days it was quite usual to copy other artists works, and family stories tell us that the painting was sent to Paris, France and won a prize for the best copy. Several of his paintings now hang the palace and other residences of the royal family.
The rulers of Tripura were among the pioneers of Photography in the Indian Subcontinent. My great great grand father Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya was the architect of modern Agartala (capital of Tripura), and an enthusiastic photographer. He acquired one of the first two cameras that came into Subcontinent (the other was purchased by Raja Deen Dayal, perhaps funded by the Indore state) and was photographing Dagguerotypes in the 1860s. He kept up with all the newer techniques of photography. Culture and arts flourished in the kingdom under his rule. He was the first person to recognize Rabindranath Tagore to be accomplished genius and awarded him when all of Bengal was critical of his early work. He even provided regular financial assistance to Santiniketan, a practice that continued with his son Radha Kishore & grandson Birendra Kishore (above).
In those days most subcontinental photographers followed the European style of making portraits – with backdrops, and props & clothes to mimick the pictures they saw as examples. I hear there was a studio setup constructed in the palace in which backdrops & props were changed whenever they got bored of it. Photography was also achieved in collaborative ways. Exposures of 10-20 seconds, plates and paper had to be sourced from Calcutta, and that was a rather tedious journey as well as a long wait. Soon the king constructed his own dark room, learnt the developing and coating process and began importing his own chemicals and accessories. His passion for photography, its dissemination and developing also got the family involved. His third wife Monmohini is said to have been an amatuer photographer, whom he tutored to develop and make prints. Perhaps the first selves-portrait in India (1880) was of them together in a fairly intimate photograph using a long wire shutter control. He established a club called the “The Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala” and what we must assume was a first, an annual photo exhibition in the subcontinent at the palace.
Bir Chandra‘s sons were also keen photographers. Samarendra (Bara Thakur) my great grand-uncle, was a prolific photographer and regularly sent his pictures to England for competitions. His work & writings on Photography are well documented and one of his most well known pictures of a tribal girl is held at the British Library. He even experimented with methods to preserve negatives in Indian hot and humid weather conditions. His own father was known to comment- “Samarendra’s paintings and photos were near flawless”. The other son Maharaja Radha Kishore Manikya, my great grand father was also a keen photographer and succeeded the throne in 1897. Unfortunately, no negatives of their works have been found so far.
My grand-uncle Birendra Kishore and my grandfather, Brajendra Kishore also took to the new medium. Of the two, my grandfather was more involved with photography, its technical aspects and was an expert at coating the plates and paper. I find this image so telling of their bond and as an ode to their exchange of ideas, because the photograph is of one brother – a keen painter, taken by the another – a keen photographer.
My grandfather, the photographer of this image, Brajendra Kishore had a passion for all the new things invented in the world and experimented with everything. He serviced and repaired all the royal cars and pocket watches. He loved to carve wood & ivory, and make furniture. Of course photography was a passion as it combined the aesthetic, mechanical and chemistry that he dabbled in anyway. He would coat the glass negatives and paper, and process and print for most of the family and taught others how to do it. He had a darkroom with a hole in the ceiling where the sun was the source of light for the enlarger. Not all of his images have survived the test of time, but this image is one from his collection of negatives that have.
Through my childhood I met my grandfather often, though only during school holidays. He taught me to shoot (with a gun) at the age of about seven and after a few years, to hand-color B&W photographs. Unfortunately I found photography to be my own keen pursuit only just before he passed in 1976, so I could not discuss any of my discoveries about photography or his pictures with him; else I am sure he would have told me about these plates, and asked that they be looked after. Nonetheless, I am proud that we are probably the only family in the subcontinent who have engaged with photography as pioneers and later as practitioners for five generations.
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