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May 10, 2024

India’s First ‘Selfie’ Was Taken by a Tripura King Back in 1880

Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya, an enthusiastic photographer was the first king of India to organize an annual photographic exhibition at his palace in Tripura. His wife Maharani Khuman Chanu Manmohini Devi was also an amateur photographer. Maharaj took this picture with the help of a black lever attached to a triggering device used a long wire shutter control and is believed to be the first ‘selfie’ in India.

Photo of Maharaja Birchandra, King of Tripura with his queen Maharani Manamohini taken by the king himself, 1880.

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 harbored 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.

The picture you see above 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.

During that time, Calcutta was a hub for the arts and all materials for developing a picture had to be sourced from the city. However, Bir Chandra decided that to nurture his passion for photography and capture his queen, he would build his own darkroom where he could develop pictures. The process flourished and soon, the king also had props decorating the studio to have a variety of backdrops as and when a picture required it. The visionary king was also the one who introduced the first Daguerreotype photography in India.

Bir Chandra was quite the photo enthusiast, and he introduced his wife Monmohini to the art. And she was a natural. She also enjoyed processing and printing the photographs they captured.

Portrait of Manmohini Devi, ca. 1880.

Along with his personal dealings with photography, the Maharaja also set up a Camera Club of the Palace of Agartala, which exhibited the photographs taken by the royal couple. Then, in May 1890, the Photographic Society of India printed a letter about the club written by Bir Chandra, along with images sent by the Tripura royals.

Bir Chandra died in 1896 and Monmohini in 1905, but the pioneering royal couple has left a lasting legacy, with many of their descendants making notable contributions to the field. Three of their sons- Samarendra Chandra Dev Burman, Radha Kishore and Brajendra Kishore – were photographers of repute.


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