In the May 1890 edition of the Photographic Society of India’s journal, a letter by Radharaman Ghosh, secretary to the Maharaja of Tripura, made a remarkable claim. Titled “The Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala” and likely dictated by the maharaja himself, the letter contained commentary on the photographs that had been dispatched to the journal. It stated that some pictures were taken by Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya and others by his wife, Maharani Manmohini. Calling attention to this information in his significant 1988 book Chobi Tola: Bangalir Photography Chorcha, writer Siddhartha Ghosh says that Manmohini “had printed most of those; the Maharaja had developed others. Each image was marked in a particular way to indicate the photographer”. This would make the maharani among the first women from India known to create photographic images.

Who was she? What do we know about her images? And what can we make of them today?

Before delving into these questions, it is helpful to briefly survey the broader landscape within which to locate and read the little known about her. By the end of the 19th century, women had been making lens-based pictures for about 50 years. In India too, by the mid-1800s, several European women had begun to either work at established studios or set up their own urban practice focussing on only women, as professional zenana photographers who could access and photograph their subjects behind purdahs. Ghosh’s book furnishes many of these names, such as Mrs E Mayer, Mrs Kenny-Levick and Bibi Wince. But while the work of European and North American women has been identified, both in their homelands as well as in colonies, it has been harder to trace the practices of women belonging to the occupied territories. Manmohini seems to be the first Indian woman credited with taking photographs, but it is her bhadramahila contemporary Sarojini Ghosh who is recognised as the first Indian woman professional photographer. One 1899 article extolled Sarojini Ghosh’s Mahila Art Studio and Photographic Store in Calcutta thus: “Bromide enlargements, platinotypes, photographs on silk, etc. are executed in effective style and at moderate rates.”

Clearly, by the last decade of the 19th century, the practice of photography was within the reach of elite women who were unencumbered by the veil, as the maharani consort of Tripura seems to have been. Along another axis of social location, Manmohini is among a small group of Indian aristocrats who operated the camera – her husband and probable teacher Maharaja Bir Chandra Bikram Manikya, of course, but also their compeer Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur and, many decades later, Rajmata Rajendra Kunverba of Kutch. Among these, Ram Singh’s oeuvre of thousands of glass plate negatives is the best preserved. Rajendra Kunverba’s archive has been entirely lost. The Manikya couple’s work seems to be sparsely available in the public domain, though what has surfaced is arguably glamorous and relatable to contemporary publics – a few years ago, a photograph that the pair took of themselves in an almost anachronistically intimate pose emerged online, widely reported on and dubbed the first Indian selfie.

Maharani Manmohini with Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya in what has been dubbed the first Indian selfie. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Taken using what Bir Chandra’s great-great-great grandson Vivek Dev Burman terms “a long wire shutter control” activated via a pneumatic bulb in the king’s hand as the couple sat facing their camera, the Manikyas’ self-portrait suggests a close and affectionate partnership. While it is impossible to comment on their marital dynamics, it does appear from the scant accounts available that they collaborated in the studio and dark room, with the young maharani learning the craft and chemistry from her husband. In her essay titled “Matrimonial Alliances between the Royal Houses of Tripura and Manipur in the Days of the Monarchy”, historian Memchaton Singha tells us more about the queen and her conjugal family. A Manipuri Meitei princess, Khuman Chanu Manmohini was the third wife of Bir Chandra, marrying him at 13, when he was 50. Notwithstanding his acceptance of premodern norms governing marriage, Bir Chandra is regarded as a modernising ruler, to whom is attributed the founding of the Agartala Municipality in 1871 and the promotion of Western-style education and culture. His pioneering interest in photography – evinced by his ownership of one of the first two cameras in India (the other being Lala Deen Dayal’s) – might be considered an example of his bent towards new ideas and technology.

Gendered codes

A member of the Royal Photographic Society till his death and founder of the Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala, Bir Chandra composed portraits of his family members, courtiers and friends such as the Tagores. Some of his platinum palladium prints were part of a 2019 exhibition titled The Tripura Project curated at the Mangalbag Gallery, Ahmedabad – by Tilla, a design studio founded by Aratrik Dev Varman, one of the king’s descendants – including another “selfie” with his first wife Bhanumati Devi. While Bhanumati does not seem to have progressed from posing to composing, Bir Chandra’s passion for photography did influence his third wife. Ghosh writes, “The Maharaja himself was an expert photographer and a keen enthusiast for the dissemination of photography. It was under his tutelage that Manmohini learned photography and soon excelled in it. She not only took photos but also developed them herself.”

Since Manmohini was trained by and probably worked somewhat subordinate to Bir Chandra, the issue of identifying which images might have been hers becomes complicated. It is unclear whether any of the labelled photographs referenced by Radharaman Ghosh seem to have survived. Another of Bir Chandra’s direct descendants, MK Pragya Deb Burman, who is the state convenor of INTACH Tripura, is able to unearth from her family archive a single photograph that she thinks was almost certainly taken by the queen – a somewhat candid snapshot of a group of children in what looks like a garden’s arbour inside the palace compound. Analysing compositional choices in terms of the gendered visual codes of the time, Deb Burman said, “This photo of the children is quite domestic in contrast to the more formal portraits of them by the king. It seems to me there was an attempt to take a series of photos.” She is of the view that the informal intimacy between the royal women and children would have lent itself to more spontaneous photoshoots.

A group of children in what looks like a garden’s arbour. MK Pragya Deb Burman, a direct descendant of Bir Chandra, believes this photograph was most likely taken by Manmohini. Credit: MK Pragya Deb Burman.

Since no details survive of the queen’s practice, it might be best to look at the infrastructure installed by the king to get a sense of the context in which she might have produced this photograph. Drawing on contemporaneous descriptions, Ghosh tells us that the maharaja came to photography through oil painting, developed a laboratory in which he appointed assistants from his court staff, sourced “printing machines of collotype and photogravure for his state press in Agartala” and arranged for full-tone reproductions of photographs – at the time a cutting-edge technology – for a genealogy of the Tripura royal dynasty. In an essay titled “Our Native Princes as Amateur Photographers: Independent Tipperah” in the journal of the Photographic Society of India, the author shares: “Through all the stages of wet and dry collodion plates, he had attained great success considering the challenges with which he had to work. With the introduction of gelatin dry plates, many of these difficulties disappeared, and this enabled His Highness to carry on his photographic work on a most extensive scale.”

Elaborating on these advancements at Bir Chandra’s court, Pragya Deb Burman said, “Photographic material imported from England was unsuitable for their local climate, so the maharaja and maharani had to develop their own material that would last in that weather.” Given the dominance of the king’s knowledge, practice and images, substantiated by numerous reports, as well as the absence of pictures that can be definitively attributed to the queen, the exact nature of Manmohini’s work is cast into doubt. She may have been the first recorded Indian woman to operate a camera, but does that quite make her a practitioner? Speaking to the photograph of children which Pragya Deb Burman considers a likely candidate for being a Manmohini original, her relative Vivek Dev Burman disagrees, basing his reasoning on the fact that she would have been unlikely to shoot outdoors or take up the cumbersome, physically demanding and technically unpredictable process of producing glass plate stereo negatives such as these. Besides, he argued, “no mother would take a picture of her children dressed so badly.” He offers up another photograph with a stronger claim to being Manmohini’s – a formal one of her daughters – pointing out that they are old enough for the queen to have become practised at such compositions, with the clothes and jewellery further possible proof of her directing the shoot.

A formal portrait of Manmohini’s daughters. The great-great-great grandson of the maharaja, Vivek Dev Burman, believes this photograph was taken by Manmohini. Credit: Jishnu Dev Varma.

However, in our email exchange, Vivek Dev Burman expresses scepticism about using the term photographer at all to describe her: “I am unsure if she was actually a photographer as we know it. More an assistant and part of the many that collaborated to make pictures. I am sure she did the styling and arranged or chose props for the shoots of her children, initially influenced by British photo magazines and later, as she gained confidence, using indigenous materials and styles. She is likely to have helped with the printing more easily…we must remember she got married as a teenager and came from a village background.” It is on the distinction between mechanical activation of a device and conscious creative decision-making that the matter of Manmohini’s claim to a specific vision rests. Vivek Dev Burman conceded, “She probably picked up some knowledge about the practical side of photography. As almost all the pictures are portraits and taken in a studio set up in the palace, there was only some variation in the backgrounds used and props, making it easier to follow instructions on how to shoot. But using those old wooden cameras was anything but easy. She may have even opened and closed the shutter following instructions, depending on the lighting conditions. If that makes her a photographer then I guess she was.”

While this may not be the case in this instance, it is hard not to keep in mind the historical erasure of the contributions of women to work produced by the men in their lives. Even accepting that she was an assistant, one might argue that her involvement in the production of these pictures – the art direction and printing process – is of interest as artistic and operational labour that forms an integral part of the image-making process. Manmohini’s very presence in the studio and the dark room, assisting her husband alongside his male court staff, affords a chance to rethink historiographies of labour in lens-based practices. (Think of Saraswatibai Phalke’s involvement in her husband DG Phalke’s film productions, holding bed linen as light reflectors, mixing film chemicals and punching holes in raw film reels.)

Contextualising this debate within the “non-standardised” systems of practice at the time, photography historian Ranu Roychoudhuri said, “First, the larger question is, who could assert their singular creative ownership of the image in the 19th century – be called a photographer – when a complex and multipart process like photography is in question?… The darkroom work was not merely ‘operational labour’ but a crucial part of the ‘creative labour’ in the 19th century.” Reflecting specifically on Manmohini’s work, Roychoudhuri is of the opinion that while no evidence remains of the nature of her darkroom experimentations, “she was certainly Bir Chandra’s active “partner in the process.”

Visual representations

At least as an image of companionate matrimony, this partnership has been documented. Apart from her asterisked work behind the camera, Manmohini’s appearance in relative dishabille in the photographs themselves – which she may have actively participated in framing – troubles the paradigm of purdah portraiture prevailing in late colonial India. Compared to, for example, Ram Singh II’s series of zenana portraits 20 years prior (entirely mediated – as scholar Laura Weinstein demonstrates – through his sovereign masculinity legitimising the purdah as compatible with colonial modernity), or even the commanding studio picture of Sultan Shah Jahan, Begum of Bhopal, Manmohini’s act of self-representation is a break from the patriarchal scope of depicting aristocratic women’s bodies on camera. She is a lover as much as a wife, her left hand draped over her husband’s shoulder, her right one resting on his belly in a proprietary hold, the arm’s suggestive curve drawing the eye to the bulb in the maharaja’s left hand, as though part of the same line of activation. This power pose becomes more pronounced when contrasted with Bir Chandra’s selfie with his first wife, Bhanumati Devi, whom he envelopes in his kingly embrace, his hand ensconcing hers in a gesture of possessive control. The casual ease with which Manmohini (already unencumbered by the purdah system as a northeastern Indian woman) makes herself available to her own gaze, via a dispositif that is no mystery to her, and allows her to refute the zenana portrait’s tension between invisibility and visibility.

Placing the self-portrait within the wider frame of photographic representations of women during this era, Roychoudhuri considers the circumstances of their availability: “The images of elite women were never meant for public display and were only to be circulated within a niche group in the family. The fact that we now have access to these restricted photographs owes itself to how studies of early photography have developed over the years, especially with the scholarly interest in photographs of women and families.”

The labelled photographs of Maharani Manmohini dispatched to the journal of the Photographic Society of India may never be recovered. Whether or not she qualified as what we would call a photographer today might remain contentious also. However, paying attention to what can be known about and seen in her images – as both maker and model – inaugurates new possibilities of thinking about feminist histories of photographic labour and the gaze in South Asia.