In a sepia-toned photograph, Maharaja Jayaji Rao Scindia of Gwalior – dressed in fine clothes – is surrounded by his courtiers. His position in the center of the frame, and the courtiers’ gaze on him, emphasise the king’s power and authority. Captured in the 1860s by the English photographer Samuel Bourne and his partner Charles Shepherd, this picture is one of many portraits dating back to the 19th century that are part of the Sarmaya collection.

Started in 2014 by banker Paul Abraham, Sarmaya is a digital archive of his collection of coins, photographs, maps, and folk, tribal and contemporary artworks along with rare books such as an 1875 volume of History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball. A part of this collection is on display at Mumbai’s Pundole Art Gallery till February 24. Titled Portrait of a Nation, A Nation in Portraits, the exhibition showcases 19th-century photographs from the Indian Subcontinent and, through them, explores its relationship with photography.

Maharajah Scindia of Gwalior with his suite, 1860s/Bourne and Shepherd. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

Tracing history

In Urdu, sarmaya means property or something valuable. For Abraham, it is the word that perfectly represented his collection. What started with 10 coins from Travancore – a princely state in Kerala that was dissolved in 1949 – in a Vaseline box has now become a collection of thousands of rare artefacts from around India.

According to the 57-year-old banker, Sarmaya grew from coins to maps and then on to black-and-white photography. “Maps came when I needed to track the old names of cities mentioned on the coins,” said Abraham. “For example, Agra used to be called Akbarabad. I started hunting [for] old maps that would have the old names of such places and eventually got interested in collecting the visual evidence of the 1857 uprising.”

Maharani of Pratapgarh. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

The exhibition begins with images of the 1857 Mutiny taken by Italian-British photographer Felice Beato, who was commissioned by the War Office in London to take documentary photographs of the damages to the buildings in Lucknow following the two sieges.

According to Madhavan Pillai, curator of the exhibition, Beato’s gritty works during this time served a dual purpose. “While the British used these images as a representation of imperial values and sacrifice for the greater good that British superiority emphasised, the images narrate the story of repression and devastation,” he said in a curatorial note.

Cashmere Gate, Delhi, 1858/Felice Beato. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

Photographers such as Samuel Bourne, Charles Shepherd and John P Nicholas, followed to India soon after and their images of the country have been popularised in exhibitions and books such as Picturing India: People, Places And The World Of The East India Company.

Portrait of indigenous Tribals from the Nilgiri Hills, 1850-59/John P Nicholas. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

Power play

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the medium of photography caught the attention of Indian maharajas, nizams, nawabs, maharawals and other royals as a medium for projecting power. A section of the exhibition is dedicated to portraits of these men and women of wealth, including those of the maharani of Pratapgarh, prince of Morvi, princess of Rajkot and of an 11-year-old Jaswant Singh, the maharaja of Bhurtpore.

In the photograph, a bejewelled Maharaja Jaswant Singh sits on a guddee, or cushion, his sword across his knees with his noble officers on either side and his servants behind him. It is not just a portrait of the little king but also an illustration of the royal durbar in session and the hierarchy of each worker in how they are positioned around the ruler.

Prince of Morvi, 1933/Lafayette Studios. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

“Initially, photography was limited to royals and wealthy individuals owing to high cost and [its] laborious process,” said Pillai. “As technology advanced, photography became more accessible to groups and important events got documented. Ruling families employed state photographers to continuously photograph ceremonies, rituals as well as hunting expeditions. These images are representative of social, economic or political power. They are capable of both affirming leaderships and of challenging their authority among their subjects and to establish themselves as equals with the British rulers.”

Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia of Gwalior, 1920s. Image courtesy: Sarmaya Collection, Mumbai.

“Many royal and rich patrons were recording occasions for posterity,” said Abraham. “Each image was probably a result of days of waiting and trying to get it right. With long exposures, one had to choose the moment carefully and get the composition right. Each photograph, in some sense, is therefore a unique work of art.”

Portrait of a Nation, a Nation in Portraits is on at the Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, till February 24.