Of begums and bheels

Vintage images

Of begums and bheels

Regal splendour : ‘Madam Doolan, Shah Jehan and Begum of Bhopal,’ 1862.

Nostalgia seems to be the new muse for photography shows these days. Barely a couple of days after a show of rare photographs on the Indo-Bhutanese relations went underway at National Gallery of Modern Art, the Alkazi Foundation opened its treasure trove of vintage photographs of the 19th century Central Provinces, titled ‘The Waterhouse Albums’, replete with never-seen before images of Begums and bheels at Shridharani Gallery, Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi.

Flashback 1862 when James Waterhouse, a young second lieutenant in the British army, was deputed on special assignment to photograph rulers, tribes, communities and archaeological subjects in the Central Provinces. The assignment soon turned extraordinary as four generations of begums who ruled the erstwhile state of Bhopal, “including the incumbent Begum Sikander”, became the subject of the Englishman’s camera. Several sessions later, spread over two years, the young army officer in the royal artillery had comprehensively documented the Begums of Bhopal, tribes like the Bheels, Meenas and others, the Maratha rulers and the Nepalese royalty. These are the images on albumenised paper that became part of what came to be called ‘The Waterhouse Albums’.

“That was possibly the only time when all the four begums of Bhopal — Qudsia, Sikander, Shah Jehan and Sultan Jahan — were photographed,” says Rahaab Allana, curator at the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts that was established three years ago to bring together artwork and photographs of the Alkazi collection. The photographs have also been published as ‘The Waterhouse Albums: Central Indian Provinces’ (edited by John Falconer, published by the Alkazi Foundation)

“Photography was used almost like a surveillance mechanism to keep a record of allies and non-allies by the British who were trying to consolidate their power,” explains Allana as one views the dramatic pictures on display. What add to the interest in the pictures are the elaborate captions that have been culled out of transcripts of Waterhouse’s personal narratives of his travels and photographic projects.

For instance, in one photograph, three men holding Turkish fans are standing behind Sikander Begum and have been described by Waterhouse as her chowriburdars. He goes on to say that the begum was bestowed with the Collar of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India. There are also photographs of Bibi Doolan, widow of a minister of the begum and Anton da Silva, the begum’s physician.

Waterhouse’s photographs of begums of Bhopal — the first Muslim rulers to be captured ever on camera — are indeed the most endearing part of the show. Exhibiting the immense power the begums of Bhopal wielded between 1819 and 1929, the pictures do full justice to both their court regalia and their personal relationships. Recounting an interesting observation, Allana says that the begums specially posed for Waterhouse with not only their courtiers but also their daughters, who would otherwise be only seen behind a purdah!

Out of Waterhouse’s notes also emerges a very progressive image of the begums. His notes mention that while Sikander begum was immensely interested in educating women of the court in Persian language and in statecraft, Sultan Jahan headed the Aligarh Women’s Education Movement. “Qudsiya Begum had no male heir and her son-in-law was unworthy of ruling Bhopal and thus Sultana Begum took over. She constantly wrote to the British updating them on the progress of the state. Sultan Jahan was the first woman to go on Haj and even wrote a book on her life,” says Allana.

Waterhouse went beyond the court and photographed the tribes and communities in the Central Provinces, such as the Bheelalahs of Sehore and the Bhils. A dramatic picture is an albumen print of the Bheels of Madhya Pradesh which may look posed to an untrained eye, but look deeply, and the image speaks volumes about the tribe’s gallantry. Also on display are pictures of the Nepalese royalty, Sanchi Stupa (then called Sanchi Tope) before restoration, images that made Waterhouse’s peers acknowledge him as “the father of photomechanical work.”

Apart from the original ‘Waterhouse Albums’ compiled by the man himself in 1863 and from which the images have been enlarged and taken, the exhibition also showcases vintage cameras — Stereoscopic and Gandolfi — from the period as well as photographs of the Photo-Litho Department of the Survey of India where Waterhouse was in-charge from 1866 to 1897. However, it is the sepia-tinted glimpse of the begums of Bhopal that will stay with you.

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