What colour is the chair?—The Untold Story of a Photograph

L. Somi Roy, film curator and producer, discusses an image of his grandparents—Maharaja Churachand Singh of Manipur and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi. Introduction by Sukanya Baskar

Maharaja Churachand Singh of Manipur and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi, 1905, The Imasi Foundation

I don’t know how to write except from what I hear, from what I experience. I write from what I encounter in life, what I hear around me.—M.K Binodini Devi, The Maharaja’s Household

Photography’s deployment as a documentary tool to capture courtly life facilitated its introduction into the royal households in India. Apart from studios that specialised in visualising princely traditions and sprawling estates, there were enthusiastic royal patrons who hired or commissioned personal photographers, and some who became practitioners themselves.

In the south, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, H. H. Mir Mahboob Ali Khan (r. 1869 – 1911) considered one of the greatest patrons of the medium, appointed Deen Dayal to become the official court photographer, eventually bestowing the title ‘Raja’ and ‘Mussavir Jung’ (Bold Warrior) upon him. There are some rare images by Raja Deen Dayal that capture the Nizam in a personal and informal setting. However, photographs from the courts often followed court painting traditions – the aesthetic and symbolism of centralising the patron flanked by the courtiers as a mark of longevity, opulence and power of the subject in front of the lens—the ruler.

Unlike the courts of Hyderabad, Jaipur or Tripura, for instance, during the latter half of the 19th century, where photography prevailed through patronage or as an elite practice, court photography or even court painting was not a popular tradition in Manipur. Photographic material till the late 19th century was generated primarily through the colonial lens for administrative and official purposes. Accounts by British officials and their families such as My Three Years in Manipur and Escape from the Recent Mutiny (1891) by Ethel St. Clair Grimwood, mainly feature landscape views or ethnographic photographs of the tribes. Perhaps the cultural notion amongst the Manipuris that photography could reduce a lifespan was reason for the lack of personal images until the early 20th century—featuring a group of family portraits of Maharani Dhanamanjuri and her daughters.

The British lens turned on Manipur, captured a land, but what was it able to tell us about the people, their culture? What would a local photographer have chosen to photograph?

Thus, the restrained presence of photography in Manipur has now presented the opportunity to create new narratives using the few surviving images. Furthermore, this effort to communicate court history by members of the royal family, such as in The Maharaja’s Household—A Daughter’s Memories of her Father, by M.K Binodini Devi, are recounted through memories and oral histories filling the gaps left by the absence of photographic evidence.

Did the delayed arrival of personal photography in Manipur change how we understand its history today? Does this rupture influence the aesthetics of photographic practice in Manipur?

Below, L. Somi Roy, uses one such image of his grandparents as a departure point –Maharaja Churachand Singh of Manipur and Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi – as an attempt to piece together a socio-political context.


What colour is the chair?

The question came from an artist in England who was interested in making a watercolour from a 1905 wedding photograph of my grandparents taken the day after the marriage ceremony. In it, Maharaja Churachand of Manipur (1886 – 1941) and his young bride, Maharani Dhanamanjuri sit perched on the arms of the comfortable, fringed chair. They make a resplendent and handsome young Asian couple. But I never really looked at the chair. 

It is not often that you think of your grandparents as a young couple in love. The young king had met my maiden grandmother in her ancestral village of Khamaram. Smitten, he courted her on horseback to her great annoyance—or so family lore held. In this photograph, the young married couple, both in their late teens, are not donned in the ceremonial ritual wedding attire of Manipur. Rather, he is dressed like an Indian prince of the day, in trousers with piping down the side, a silver embroidered velvet tunic, and with a turban on his head. His lovely young bride sits on the other arm of the chair. She does not need to perch up on it like her new, shorter, husband.

Manipuris were superstitious about photography. Like in many old cultures, they too believed that having their photographs taken could shorten their lifespans. Early British photography in Manipur was therefore confined to landscapes and villagers and tribesmen. There are virtually no court photographs, certainly none on par with other kingdoms in India, or even portraiture of the royalty in general. Manipuri culture is highly performative and has surprisingly little by way of a painting and sculptural tradition. There are, however, few architectural photographs of the palace in Kangla—a sacred moated fort held in such awe and fear by Manipuris that even some kings chose not to live there.

Coming back to the photograph in question, there is also something curious about the manner in which the young queen is photographed, unusual already in its levels of access. She is seen traditionally attired in a Manipuri sarong, called a phanek , which covers her bosom with a swath of silk embroidery and falls to her mid-calf. She wears it in the traditional style of a married woman, over the breasts and not from the waist down as unmarried girls do. Her lovely shoulders are bare and rows of gold necklaces drape from her neck. She holds a gauzy white stole in her lap. She wears no blouse, as is high traditional formal fashion in Manipur. But that a married Manipuri woman would not wrap her stole around her shoulders, much less leave her head uncovered in the presence of her husband, is striking. It would have been shocking to the Manipuri viewer, especially at the turn of the 20th century. The way the young queen wears her phanek, in the manner of a married woman, confirms it was taken the day after the wedding, but in all likelihood it could not have been taken at a traditional Manipuri event or setting.

The earliest palace photography in a Manipuri setting outside of British and official photographs I have encountered are intimate family portraits of Maharani Dhanamanjuri and her daughters. A set of photographs taken in her boudoir in 1922 show her in both Manipuri and European clothes in front of a painted screen. The simple girl from Khamaram village had, by this time, transformed into a poised and forward thinking queen. She kept an English companion and the unschooled Dhanamanjuri came to speak three languages, including a working knowledge of English. She encouraged education for her daughters, and established Manipur’s first college, Dhanamanjuri College, now University, in Imphal in 1946 with her own private funds.

Maharani Dhanamanjuri Devi, with her youngest daughter, Princess Wangol, the future Manipuri writer Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi, 1922, The Imasi Foundation

The English artist had seen the photograph in The Maharaja’s Household: A Daughter’s Memories of her Father, which I later translated from the memoir essays written by my mother in 2008. In this, my mother, the Manipuri writer Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi, wrote about her father Maharaja Sir Churachand Singh, KCSI, CBE, of Manipur, and his family.

The writer Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi, in the mid- 1960s, when she started writing her historical novel Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi. Photograph by Aribam Syam Sharma, The Imasi Foundation

In writing about her father’s 50-year reign, between 1891–1941, the book covers the years when Manipur was a part of the British Raj, towards the tail end of Empire. Internecine rivalries between the brothers of the House of Karta of Manipur’s Ningthouja dynasty resulted in a coup and political instability, after which the British stepped in. The British had considered Manipur a protected state and had policed its borders as a buffer against Burma (now Myanmar), their common enemy which they had together defeated in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). This time, they turned against their former ally and defeated the kingdom in the Anglo-Manipuri War of 1891 and brought Manipur under direct control.

Maharaja Churachand’s reign started in 1891, when the five-year old from the previous House of Narasingh, also of the Ningthouja dynasty, was chosen by Col. Henry St. John Maxwell, the new British Political Agent, and enthroned as king. In 1895, Col. Maxwell packed the boy off to the Eton of the East—Mayo College in Ajmer, in the Rajasthani desert. He had a bungalow built, now the Chief Minister’s residence, for the young schoolboy to stay in when he came home for the holidays. There, along with other scions of princely India, the young Churachand was groomed to be the future ruler under Maxwell’s watchful eye.

Col. Henry St. John Maxwell, British Political Agent in Manipur (1891 – 1905), The Imasi Foundation

The boy turned out rather well, perhaps paying more attention to sports than to his books. From history and family lore, as well as from my translation of my mother’s palace memoirs, I knew that the boy-king learnt to play cricket and tennis there along with other young rajas and became quite the pukka public school product. A gloriously chaotic school photograph from 1896 shows the young raja, wearing a white turban and a black tunic, wilfully offering his profile in a group of splendidly attired princes. He grew up to be an able and long-reigning king and Manipur’s first modern and sports loving monarch, with coveted and extolled cricket fields of velvet green. He introduced modern polo back to his kingdom, the birthplace of the traditional game. And all his life, as in his wedding photograph too, he wore his turban in the Rajasthani safaa style that people in Manipur came to call the Ajmeri.

Maharaja Churachand as a student of Mayo College, The Imasi Foundation

Mayo College, 1896. Maharaja Churachand, front row, seventh from the right, Mayo College archives 

Maharaja Churachand and engineer Mr. Blackie on the polo field outside Kangla Fort ~ 1930, Imasi Foundation

So, returning to the very first image, what colour was the chair in the photograph? I took a close look at the black-and-white image, now an antique ivory, and concluded that it was leather. Leather? For a Hindu King in a highly orthodox land? I thought perhaps not. Certainly not in 1905 when their wedding took place. Why, just within living memory, a neighbour said he had to bathe before entering the house when he came home from learning his ABCDs in an English school which was considered impure.

I suspected it was a British chair and not the king’s, which would have been upholstered in velvet. I said to a cousin I thought it was taken by the British, perhaps at the wedding reception for our grandparents. However, there were no records of such an event that we had come across. The first authoritative modern edition of the court chronicle, the Cheitharol Kumbaba, published in 1964, surprisingly does not mention the wedding of Maharaja Churachand and Maharani Dhanamanjuri. The handwritten sheaves of the chronicle have been maintained contemporaneously and copied scholar to scholar, from ruler to ruler, since the 12th century. It is likely that the reference was dropped when the puya, as Manipuri manuscripts are called, was written. I then asked my cousin whether Maxwell, the officer who put our grandfather on the throne, was still the British Political Agent at the time – the married man who scandalously took the deposed king’s married daughter, Maharaja Churachand’s cousin, as his native wife. 

Maharaj Kumari Sanatombi, daughter of Maharaja Surchandra (1886 – 1890) at the British Residency, The Imasi Foundation

I was well aware of family stories of Princess Sanatombi, the daughter of Maharaja Surchandra Singh of the deposed House of Karta of Manipur, who abandoned her husband and became the native wife of Col. Maxwell, an enemy of her people, and the new ruler of her land. It was shortly after her father’s exile and the take-over of the kingdom of Manipur in 1891. All of Manipur knows the story. Many families have their own household versions—rumour and gossip about it. After all, Boro Saheb Ongbi Sanatombi  (The Princess and the Political Agent) in 1976 by Binodini, the single name that Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi wrote under, is a celebrated and popular historical novel in Manipur. It won India’s top literary honours—the Sahitya Akademi Award—for the author in 1979. As the daughter of Maharaja Churachand Singh, its publication almost got my mother excommunicated from her relatives in the Palace for daring to write of a headstrong, now disgraced ancestor. It is said that some discouraged her from writing it.

The Palace in Kangla Fort, ~ late 1880s, Alkazi Collection of Photography         

The gallows for the execution of Prince Tikendrajit, 1891, Alkazi Collection of Photography  

So wouldn’t the Englishman Maxwell, I posed to my cousin, so closely entwined with Manipur having ordered the destruction of the palace and the execution of a Manipuri prince on the one hand, but also having commissioned the first English translation of the Court Chronicle of his wife’s forbears, have been there for the boy’s wedding had he been around. Surely, he would have kept an eye on his progress, looked at his school reports from Mayo College and discussed them with Princess Sanatombi, I thought. Few Manipuris could read and write English then. Additionally, he was not only the Political Agent and the boy’s guardian but the consort of the boy’s cousin. He took a personal interest in the lad. The Maharaja’s Household recounts family lore that Maxwell had come on his own on horseback to the Ngangbam family residence of Dhanamanjuri one evening to see for himself, the young maiden that his teenage ward, the young Maharaja, was in love with.

Raja Dumbra Singh, eldest brother of Maharaja Churachand Singh, The Imasi Foundation

The ostracized Princess Sanatombi was considered “fallen” and most likely did not attend, and was probably not even invited to her cousin’s wedding, organised by his eldest brother, the formidable Raja Dumbra Singh. I wondered idly whether the shunned Princess Sanatombi would have thrown a little wedding reception for him? If so, that could have been at the British Residency (Col.Maxwell and Princess Sanatombi’s home since 1892), then a large bungalow with a thick thatched roof, once covered by rose trellises and by now, tellingly installed with gun holes by a predecessor.

The British Residency in the mid-1880s, Alkazi Collection of Photography

Then I asked myself: How often do we ever really think of what the British thought of us? What could have been the complicated relationship between so-called ‘native’ and ‘foreigner’?  My mother’s novel was from the perspective of the fallen princess and a defeated country. I wondered what Col. Maxwell made of all this and how he felt about his consort’s family, her people, of his wife’s young cousin. I looked at the photograph again, this time searching for the absent figure behind the chair where the young married couple posed. It seemed likely to me that the British would host the young wedded couple, maybe throw them a little party at the British Residency, now the Governor’s residence.

You’re getting carried away, my cousin said drily. You’re just making it all up! Wait, I said to him, When was Maxwell here until? My cousin fell silent, peering at his screen. Googling, no doubt. 1905, he said. Till which month, which date, I pursued. He looked again. March 16, 1905, he said quietly. My grandparents’ wedding was on March 17. The next day.

So, Colonel Maxwell had timed the wedding of his young ward, the boy from the Narasingh lineage of the Ningthouja dynasty that he had personally selected to be the king of Manipur, with his own farewell to Manipur. Maxwell handed in his papers as the Political Agent of Manipur on the day before the wedding.

The British Residency destroyed by Manipuris after the Anglo-Manipur War, 1891, Alkazi Collection of Photography

Col. Maxwell had to be there. He had made sure to be there for the boy whose cousin he had taken as his wife. He had given him a crown, an education, and now, it seemed to me, he wanted the young man to be settled down with a wife. Yes, it seems likely to me that the photograph was taken by the British, probably at the British Residency, when, I like to think, he and Princess Sanatombi received the young man they had successfully groomed to be king together with his beautiful young queen. What a moment of triumph it must have been despite the humiliation and disquiet of his imminent departure. A moment of personal gratification for Col. Henry St. John Maxwell.  

So was it his chair?


L. Somi Roy is a film curator and producer. He is the Founder of Imasi: The Maharaj Kumari Binodini Devi Foundation in Manipur (www.imasi.org), and a translator of Binodini’s works from Manipuri to English. He is grateful to Wangam Somorjit for additional historical research.

Photo credit: Giulia Iacolutti