How the portrait of Jodhpur Maharaja Takhat Singh was a pioneer


On a cliff on the edge of the Thar Desert stands Mehrangarh Fort, a majestic structure around which the city of Jodhpur was built in the early 15th century. Its magnificent architecture housed the Maharaja of Jodhpur and his court, as well as the royal workshop which produced luxurious textiles, clothing, jewelry and paintings.

Readers may know this fort well as the Mehrangarh Museum, a space open to the general public with the aim of educating patrons about Marwari life, art and culture. What they may not know is that it was also part of a significant shift in portraiture styles that occurred during the reign of Maharaja Takhat Singh from 1843 to 1873.

The Mehrangarh Museum maintains an extensive collection of miniature paintings. These were often bound in albums or kept loose in portfolios, intended for viewing in an intimate setting and only by an elite. As illustrated in a painting – in the museum’s collection – of Maharaja Takhat Singh with a female companion, we can see that Indian paintings conformed to the Mughal-derived idiom in which the ruler’s face is seen in perfect profile with the body in three-quarter position, standing or sitting.

A miniature style painting of Maharaja Takhat Singh and a companion reveling in the rains, by Shivdas (c.1843–1873, Jodhpur), part of the collection of Meherangarh Fort. Photo: Meherangarh Fort Museum via Laura Marsolek, published with permission.

The Maharaja is depicted in a stylized manner with simplified features, an abnormally large eye, luxurious garments that do not drape credibly over the body, and a nimbus or halo surrounding his head in an attempt to represent his divine nature. Artists have sometimes made the ruler twice as large as their surroundings in order to emphasize their importance. The garden architecture in this miniature painting has a flattened effect and recedes into space without proper linear perspective. As a result, Maharaja Takhat Singh and his companion do not credibly sit in space, appearing larger than their surroundings.

Power, politics and portraits

The transfer of power from the Mughal Emperor to the British Raj in the 19th century sparked a cultural and artistic shift that would have a lasting impact on how Indian maharajas chose to be depicted in paintings. The British held direct power over the Indian subcontinent from 1858. At that time, a British resident was posted to Jodhpur as an extension of the British government, and whose duty it was to maintain a peaceful working relationship with Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Maharaja Takhat Singh enthusiastically maintained a relationship with the British resident of Jodhpur by attending functions within the house and hosting Western-style banquets in the fort. According to K. Singh Jasol, the director of the Mehrangarh Fort Museum, many believe that the Maharaja attended a Christmas celebration at the British resident’s home because he curiously ordered the installation of Christmas tree bulbs at the ceiling of his personal chamber in the fort of Mehrangarh, still visible today.

These political connections resulted in an artistic exchange that manifested in a new style of portraiture never seen before in Jodhpur – portraiture took on monumental proportions. The painting grew from a small, intimate scale to large proportions meant to be installed on the wall, having its own “presence” in the room. This change is first visible in the portrait of Maharaja Takhat Singh, a reproduction of which is on public display at Meherangarh Fort, while the original is in Umaid Bhawan Palace, the private residence of Maharaja Gaj Singh II and his family. But perhaps the most striking change is the emphasis on subject matter and the realism with which the Maharaja is depicted.

east meets west

Western influence in Jodhpur brought black and white studio photography, which profoundly changed the way Maharajas documented their likeness and the way painters depicted the appearance of their patron. Meanwhile, Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur was making a name for himself as a photographer prince. His photos also contributed to this change in the royal portrait. However, that’s a story for a different article.

In this significant portrait, Takhat Singh is depicted in a frontal posture with his full face turned towards the viewer, in complete divergence from the strict profile view of the miniature paintings. He wears a finely woven cotton jama and is adorned with layers of jewels from the Jodhpur treasury that proclaim her hereditary lineage. The painter has taken great care to expertly illustrate the fabric of the garments as well as the rows of Colombian pearls and emeralds that cascade over her figure. Previously, jewels were painted as abstractions or in a generic representation. Maharaja Takhat Singh wears his favorite style of turban, the khirkia paag, so pronounced that it required a fitted copper frame underneath. His right arm rests on a balustrade, separating him from the jungle backdrop framed by a colonial arch. The portrait is a brilliant combination of Indian and Western sensibilities.

A new style is born

Maharaja Takhat Singh’s son and successor, Jaswant Singh II, continued this tradition of monumental style portraiture for his official representation. The painter, Bert Harris, likely worked from a black and white studio photograph of the Maharaja to expertly imbue a sense of realism.

Many elements of the Maharaja’s attire and decorum have significance, from the famous ‘Jodhpurs’, or fashionable jodhpurs, to the choice of resting his right arm on a book atop a desk like a wink. eye to the Western ideal of an “educated man”. of letters’. The Colombian emerald necklace is the same as that of Takhat Singh, signifying the wealth of the state of Marwar and his divine right to rule. He wears the garland of the Order of the Star of India, with a portrait of Queen Victoria, showing his loyalty to the Crown.

Maharaja Gaj Singh II standing in front of the portrait of Maharaja Takhat Singh at Umaid Bhawan Palace. Photo: Meherangarh Fort Museum via Laura Marsolek, published with permission.

As can be seen, the Maharajas of Jodhpur followed in the footsteps of their predecessors by adopting studio photography and incorporating a Western style of monumental portraiture into their official image. Jaswant Singh II’s son, Maharaja Sardar Singh (1895–1911), had his full-length portrait painted by the same English portrait painter, Bert Harris, in a similar style.

Monumental portraiture was not exclusive to the court of Jodhpur, but rather an artistic shift that took place in many other princely kingdoms. There were hundreds of states in the Indian subcontinent, each with its own ruler, traditions and local customs.

By the end of the 18th century, British residents and local agents were stationed in most major cities where they participated in rituals and, in return, hosted their princely counterpart at their residence for Western celebrations. The fact is that this cross-pollination in culture and artistic tradition has taken place across the subcontinent.

The translation of princely appearance took on new proportions, and for the first time large European canvases allowed 19th-century Indian rulers to see themselves in a life-size, if not larger, image.

Studio photography had done away with lavish garden scenes and ornamental durbars, reducing the figure to a single seated or standing image with minimal props. Indian rulers embraced these technological and artistic changes, finding ways to fuse their ideas of royal self-representation into a new medium and format. A Western idiom of portraiture combined with unique Indian sensibilities had forever changed the way monarchs of the subcontinent were portrayed.

This article is part of the Saha Sutra on Sahapediaan open online resource on Indian arts, culture and heritage.

Laura Marsolek is an art historian, educator, and metalworker with a master’s degree in art history from Syracuse University. She lived inside the fort and worked in the conservation department of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust as the 2018-19 American Henry Luce Scholar. She participated in the research and inventory of the museum’s collection of decorative arts, jewelry and photographs. After her stay in India, Laura became a certified gemologist (diamonds and colored stones) by studying as an intern at the world headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America in Carlsbad, California. She currently works in the fine jewelry department of Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas.


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