Did you know that India’s first selfie was taken in 1880 by Tripura’s Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya, the architect of modern Agartala and a pioneer of photography during his time?
You see it everywhere today — people holding their phone up and angling their front cameras to just the right degree so that the light casts the perfect shadow on their face. You may have even indulged in it yourself.
Today, where there’s a smartphone, there’s a ‘selfie’. A new makeup look, the odd hairstyle, run-ins with your favourite celebrity, special lunches with your friend, winning a prestigious competition, or showing the world that you voted this election — there’s a lot one simple picture can let the world know about your life.
It’s no wonder that in 2013, Oxford Dictionary declared ‘selfie’ the word of the year.
But if you believe this peculiar way of photographing was exclusive to the modern world, think again. Turns out, Indian royals have been doing it for some time now.
The first ‘selfie’ of India
History tells us that in the 19th century, there was Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya and his queen Maharani Khuman Chanu Manmohini Devi.
The couple were passionate about the arts and photography, and the Maharaja was, in fact, the second royal to possess a camera, the first being Raja Deen Dayal of Indore.
While the Maharaja harboured a love for photography, he was also a wonderful architect and is credited with planning modern Agartala. It is said that he was a forward-thinking monarch and encouraged reforms in Tripura, while encouraging people to think of new ideas.
So it comes as no surprise that he was behind India’s first ‘selfie’.
The picture you see is said to be taken around 1880 and portrays the king and queen in close embrace. On closer observation, you’ll find that the king’s hand rests on a small device on the right.
The device not only resembles a lever, but also functions like one. It’s connected by a long wire to the camera. Pull the lever and voila! Your picture has been taken.
This is how the king and queen captured this sweet moment between the two, without the need for anyone to be present in the room.
In an article to The Hindu, M K Pragya Deb Burman, convenor of INTACH Tripura Chapter and a descendant of the late Maharaja said, “He was a pioneer in giving a fillip to arts and photography and so was his better half, Manmohini Devi. In fact, the duo laid the foundation of Tripura’s historical bond with arts.”
But while this invention by the king was commendable, one question remains. At a time when developing photos was rare in Indian society, how did the Maharaja manage it?
From an amateur to a veteran
In the era we are speaking of, cameras had made their way into the country, but were a luxury of sorts. While Europeans enjoyed photography clubs held at metro cities, Indians weren’t usually seen at these events.
Among the Indian cities, Calcutta was a hub for the arts and all material for developing a picture had to be sourced from the city.
However, Bir Chandra decided that since he loved clicking pictures of his queen, he would build his own darkroom where he could develop the pictures. The process flourished and in time, the king also had props put up in the studio to have a variety of backdrops as and when a picture required it.
The Maharaja was also keen that his queen learn the technique of developing pictures, as Burman tells The Hindu. She says that he would teach the begum the intricacies of the trade and that the king “was responsible for introducing daguerreotype photographs in East India”.
Along with his personal dealings with photography, the Maharaja also set up a Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala and displayed the pictures he clicked here.
Much later on, the same iconic ‘selfie’ was painted by the Maharaja and is often seen at exhibitions that showcase the history and culture of Tripura. Burman said, “Maharaja Bir Chandra painted this portrait from a photograph. With wife in tow, he took an intimate selfie using a methodology of long wire shutter control. And then made this painting.”
Edited by Divya Sethu