When Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya (r. 1862-1896) decided to freeze a moment in time spent with his queen, he decided that a portrait of the royal couple would be an apt memento. This is the picture of the Tripura royals taken circa 1880.
While the Maharaja placed his right arm around his wife’s shoulder, notice his left hand clutching something. It’s the lever to a long wire control that operated the camera’s shutter. When Maharaja Bir Chandra pulled it, he took what is one of the earliest-known self-portraits, or ‘selfies’ by an Indian.
This was around 40 years after cameras made their way into India in the 1840s. Photography clubs were set up in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras but they were dominated by Europeans. As for Indians, photography was the preserve of royals, who had the luxury of time and money to indulge in this art.
Bir Chandra was besotted with the camera and was only the second Indian royal to own one, after Raja Deen Dayal of Indore, who was known as the ‘prince of photographers’. He went on to become the court photographer of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad and made valuable contributions to the art. Other royals who experimented with the camera were Sawai Ram Singh – II of Jaipur, and the Rajas of Chamba and Benaras.
But Bir Chandra had an artistic bent and was a pioneer of photography in India. He was a very progressive monarch and, apart from the many administrative reforms he introduced in his kingdom, culture and the arts flourished in Tripura under his patronage. But it was his talent for photography that made him stand out among his contemporaries.
At the time, the plates, chemicals, and other materials required for this nascent art had to be sourced from Calcutta, the nearest large metro. Also, photographic plates had to be transported all the way there to be developed.
It was all so tedious and time-consuming that Bir Chandra, a self-taught photographer, built his own dark room and learnt to develop his own photographs. He also built his own studio, where the backdrops and props were frequently changed, as was the convention among photographers of the time. Oh, the perks of being king!
Bir Chandra was quite the photo enthusiast, and he introduced his wife Manmohini to the art. And she was a natural! She also enjoyed processing and printing the photographs they captured.
The Maharaja loved photography so much that he wanted nothing more than to popularise it. So he set up the Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala, which exhibited the photographs taken by the royal couple. Then, in May 1890, the Photographic Society of India printed a letter about the club written by Bir Chandra, along with images sent by the Tripura royals.
Bir Chandra died in 1896 and Manmohini in 1905, but the pioneering royal couple has left a lasting legacy, with many of their descendants making notable contributions to the field. Three of their sons – Samarendra Chandra Dev Burman, Radha Kishore and Brajendra Kishore – were photographers of repute.
Descendants of the Tripura royals regularly display photographs taken by various members of the family, at exhibitions across the country. The image that consistently graces them is the one believed to be India’s first ‘selfie’.
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