A Perfect Shot: Photographs of the Hunt
First tiger trophy of Manvendra Maharaja Narendra Singh at the age of eleven, 1926 (Royal Collection, Panna)
To the contemporary viewer, the traditional hunting photograph might offer little more than a static documentation of violence, a relic of colonial-era excess and self-mythologized genealogy. The worn images of the khaki-clad hunter with weapon in hand, poised over his—almost exclusively “his”—prey, which lies immobile beneath the killer’s boot, live largely in the homes of the elite, stretching out their existence in the albums of army families, nominal royalty, and in the lobbies of guest houses bordering national parks.
While the opulent, nostalgic hunting photograph might occupy an archaic cultural imagination, these images of shikar (hunting) have also become significant markers of India’s historical trajectories after the late 19th century. Photographs of blood sport can offer fascinating records of the political and aesthetic transformations that came with early links to modernity. These images then become not just documents of material history but also a kind of evidence of performative power, hierarchy, technologies of distribution and communication, the nature of the family archive, and early conservation practices.
In their eponymous book on Raja Deen Dayal—perhaps the most exalted 19th-century Indian photographer who worked closely with the royal families of India’s princely states, often accompanying them on hunts—Deborah Hutton and Deepali Dewan expound on these connections. They explain how Dayal’s highly staged photographs of shikar became tools for the ruling Nizams to demonstrate authority and sovereignty over their (shrinking) kingdoms during the Raj, with the masculine activity of hunting becoming almost metonymic for the qualities of an ideal imperialist. These displays of power captured in the still frame also recalled classical depictions of Mughal emperors, to whom the Nizams considered themselves the last link in India. Dewan and Hutton also explore how the development of taxidermic practices alongside that of weapons and cameras, gave rise to the “trophy shot,” an idiom for the typical hunting photographs that we have come to know today.
In this week’s post, Vamika Jain confronts some of these complex contextual questions and learns about the history of game hunting in the former princely state of Panna. While sifting through the archives of the royal family, she unearths some of the ethical and cultural contradictions contained within shikar photography, and wonders how we can reconcile a history of violence with the contemporary landscape, both natural and photographic.
“The moment I shot all three of them within minutes, I felt that I had committed a mistake. I had killed a tiger family, which takes twenty-five years to grow and mature. It was then that I decided to put aside my gun forever and engage with the conservation of nature and wildlife.” — Maharaj Lokendra Singh, on his last hunt
Located in the central highlands of India, Panna (Punnah) remained a princely state until the political integration of all states in 1951, when it acceded to the newly-formed Indian government and became a part of Madhya Pradesh. The royal family of Panna now lives in the palace, which is an island of history and an archive of classical Beaux-Arts architecture with its the fluted columns, Corinthian capitals, grand staircase, and parapets. Waiting in the front room of the palace, I looked around at the walls decorated with old photographs and trophies of deer, sambhars, and tigers. I had never before met a maharaj, nor had I ever seen a taxidermic animal trophy; bearing witness to these animals’ fate disturbed me. While trying to place the room in a historical context, I found it to be a labyrinth of multiple political, social, and cultural transformations and noticed a similar language contained within the photographs of the room, almost all of which were of shikar (hunting for sport)—the king poised over his prey, a symbol of masculinity, power, and sovereignty. I was in Panna to do research on the history of game hunting in the region, and Maharaj Lokendra Singh had agreed to help me with a bundle of albums to look through and offered to share his own personal experiences of the infamous sport, having been an avid hunter himself until he killed a family of tigers and, realising his grave mistake, consequently put aside his gun to become the founder of Panna National Park in 1981. This account of his last hunt made me particularly curious about the emotional and psychological conditions associated with shikar and tiger-hunting, a sport which has been embedded in the history of royal territories in India for centuries.
(Above) Display of hunting guns at the royal palace in Panna, 1930 (Below) Trophy with dimensions and details, 1968 (Royal Collection, Panna)
For many princely states that neighboured rich, verdant forests, tigers became crucial markers of state identity. Some rulers believed that the loss of natural habitats and reduced number of tigers symbolised the declining political, social, cultural, and economic condition of their kingdom. This symbolic connection urged certain states to protect their tiger populations, if only for the royal families them to hunt the cats themselves. Each princely state continued the tradition and practiced its own style of game hunting, which later became an activity to earn trophies as well. In many regions, hunting also came to be seen as a rite of passage into manhood for the prince. Further, as the rule of the British Raj did not favour the princely states, restricting limits of sovereign power and the freedom of dialogue with other states, the forest became a platform and outlet to execute self-defined governance. Having free reign over the hunting fields, owing to their old sovereign privileges in South Asia, allowed rulers to compete with each other and simultaneously demonstrate their valour and independence to the British imperialists. Success at game hunting came to be seen as a symbol of strength, a royal privilege, and an opportunity to perform power. Elaborate hunting ceremonies were also organised for guests, to introduce them to the local natural landscape and demonstrate the extent of the king’s reign.
Because of its lush landscape and abundant wildlife, Panna had been a hunting ground for centuries. The earliest account of its use can be found in the Mesolithic cave paintings present inside Panna National Park. The rock paintings, drawn in dotted lines with red pigment, depict many hunting scenes with human-like figures aiming at animals. With the dispersal of the Gond settlement in the 17th century and the arrival of Bundela rulers, these scenes of the hunt became part of the visual language of the region. The Bundela kings also brought with them their own understanding of conservation and ways of forest management; their idea of protection involved improving the number and health of big cats, large herbivores, and the habitat to in turn increase the abundance and quality of their own hunt. The trophy kills, and tigers in particular, were symbols of courage that were displayed with pride, and often represented a king’s mark on the field and his command over the game.
Tigers, largely stealthy, solitary cats, are expert stalkers that blend into the dense cover of the forests, which often made their shikar a difficult activity for these royal hunters, but the shikaris enjoyed the waiting of the game, strategizing and planning for it not unlike on any other battle field. Every kingdom further exercised its own set of rules and traditions for the hunt which had to be strictly followed by the state. Panna, for example, had the following edicts for hunting on its territory: the tigers could only be killed by the king or by someone in the king’s presence; The hunt of sambhars, deer, and other cats could only be done with the king’s permission; No female tigers were hunted as their survival was important for generating new populations; The size of each new kill had to be larger than the animal hunted previously. The bigger animals were typically stuffed by taxidermists while the meat of smaller prey was often used for consumption by the royal family of Panna. During the winter months in particular, wild boar and sambhar were hunted for their meat. Speaking about the practice of seasonal hunting for sustenance, Maharaj Lokendra Singh explains, “sambhar meat is very dry while wild boar meat was regarded as the perfect meal, as it contains a lot of fat along with some portion of plain meat. Chinkara and migratory ducks’ meat was also eaten during winters. During summers, when the grass is dry, rabbit meat tasted the best and its taste would change during other seasons. We preferred having chital (spotted deer) during the rainy season.”
Maharaja Yadvendra Singh of Panna with his majestic trophy and favourite elephant Rustom Gaj in Panna, 1925 Rajkumar of Rajpipla (nephew of Maharaja of Panna) with his trophy in forest of Panna, 1957The political agent as a guest of Panna state with the tiger shot by him and the royal elephants, 1937 (Royal Collection, Panna)
Consorting with tigers was a key index of power and authority, and the rulers who killed, caged or controlled these big cats received respect and admiration. Apart from the taxidermied trophies as souvenirs of their excursions, colonial-era sportsmen, both Indian and British, keenly documented their hunts, clad in full attire, collecting photographs as evidence of their kills. During game drives, the rulers dressed in their formal, outdoor garb, which often consisted of grey khaki that the king complemented with a hunting cap and boots. Many rulers wore bullets and pellets in a belt around their waist for easier access during the hunt, while queens and princesses usually wore long coats over grey trousers and shirts paired with long boots. With the arrival and popularity of photography—accessible mostly to the elite—in 19th-century India, rulers wished to be photographed with their prey in its natural habitat after the kill. The royal photographers then often accompanied kings on their hunts, on horseback and elephant, poised to capture the perfect image.
Looking closely at the Maharaj’s archives, I notice that the iconic photographs of game hunts almost always illustrate a pattern of hierarchy in the placement of its subjects—the animal on the ground and in the centre, the king positioned in the middle with higher-ranking officials surrounding him, and the rest on the peripheries. In these images, the shikari, typically the ruler, state guests, or sometimes the queen or princess, stand behind the outstretched body of the prey, whose body is spread out to exhibit its size, while its head is propped up with a stick or a large stone to display its fierceness. In these souvenir photos, the sportsman or hunter often rests his foot, hand, or rifle butt on the trophy.
Poring over these archives, I was also surprised to find a few photographs of women on hunts. In the pervasive culture of the time, women were not associated with notions of wildness and power—characteristics typically attributed to their male counterparts—that came with hunting, so it was refreshing to come across images of ladies draped in saris or long coats participating in hunting adventures, photographic evidence that contradicted the norms of the time.
In Panna, much has changed since the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, which outlawed hunting wild animals. What was once a hunting field is now a government-protected National Park, and it is hard to imagine that the same landscape has borne witness to such contrasting principles. The photographs, which were then the proud souvenirs of shikar are now proof of sordid, illegal activity. Reading through the Maharaj’s archives, I became cognizant of the evolution in humanity’s relationship to the tiger, and the consequent shift in how the cat is valued in our contemporary movement of ecological conservation. Where the photographs of game-hunting highlighted intrepid, physical interaction between the tiger and the noble hunter, today tourists visiting Panna National Park on a safari interact with tigers at a legally defined distance that eschews proximity. Today, only poachers that are caught by field officers in the park can be photographed with their hunt, the images, once a thing of valour, now used as incriminating evidence.
Maharaja of Panna Yadvendra Singh with his sons and a leopard shot by him, 1927Maharaja of Panna and Maharaja of Alwar who shot the tiger in Panna, 1939Maharaj Lokendra Singh of Panna and his uncle after he killed 3 tigers during the same drive and decided to put aside his gun, 1959Maharani of Tripura (princess of Panna) with her daughter (later the Maharani of Kutch) after a game in forest of Panna, 1950Maharani of Rajpipla (princess of Panna) photographed with other princesses and children after shooting a big trophy, 1950Unknown/ Maharaja of Panna With Maharaja of Jaipur and the regional British political agent after the hunt, 1940 (All: Royal Collection, Panna)
Vamika Jain graduated as an architect in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master’s in Photography Design from the National Institute of Design, Gandhinagar, India. She works with photographs but also likes to experiment with montage, text, and images. Vamika is interested in exploring how humans and non-human animals interact and inhabit a shared landscape.
Arnav Adhikari is a writer, editor, and researcher based in New Delhi. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Wire, and Hyperallergic. He also worked with Magnum Foundation on the exhibition Live, Love, Limbo at Photoville Festival in Brooklyn.