In the early hours of February 6, 1993, India’s finest photographic archive, that of Bourne and Shepherd, photographers by ‘special appointment to the Viceroy’, went up in smoke. At daybreak the people of Calcutta woke to find their streets carpeted with singed Victorian prints: maharajas with bird’s-nest beards were lying in the gutters; images of the great Delhi Durbar of 1911 floated over the rooftops of Ballygunge and the lawns of the Tolly Club; Viceroys in white ties fluttered across the Maidan into the Ganga and were washed down unceremoniously into the Bay of Bengal.
It is a widespread belief in India that death is mitigated by the certainty of rebirth; any disaster is mirrored somewhere else by a blessing. So maybe it was no coincidence that the same year, archivists in Bikaner found in a cupboard in a distant wing of the great Lalgarh Palace perhaps the greatest trove of photographs of princely Rajasthan ever collected. These were the photographic archives of the maharajas of Bikaner from 1890 to 1950. Shrouded in a cocoon of neem leaves, the albums had miraculously survived monsoon damp, summer heat and the attention of white ants.
The albums were found to contain a complete visual record of an Indian princely state during its transition from a medieval twilight to the dawn of modern India. The early pictures in the collection have a dream-like, fairy-tale quality to them: Bikaner, lost in the vast camel-thorn wastes of the Thar, was a princely oasis of caparisoned elephants and sacred umbrellas, of cumulus beards and moustaches waxed into astounding tooth-pick topiary. Behind the lattice screens of the Moon Palace, princesses fanned themselves to fend off the summer heat; and so great was the temperature, even in spring, that the princes were forced to play polo at night—with luminous balls coated with sea sulphur. It was a world so effete that the finer nuances of a princess’s horoscope could determine the marriage politics of the entire state; a world so desiccated that the maharaja ordered monsoon clouds painted on the walls of the palace nursery so that the young princes would know a storm if ever, in later life, they saw one.
Into this make-believe kingdom came the practical figure of Maharaja Ganga Singh. Gangaji was educated by the British at Mayo College, where he learned ‘faultless English, excellent table manners and good cricket’. Gangaji was determined to drag Bikaner out of the pages of Sleeping Beauty, and to build some railways. He threw his desert kingdom into a manic construction programme, encompassing water works that irrigated an area the size of England, and a representative assembly.
Ganga Singh was also one of the first Indian rulers to appreciate the possibilities of photography. Not only did he encourage his court photographers to visually document every aspect of the life of the kingdom, he also encouraged his court miniature painters to ‘improve’ on the black and white reality of the sepia prints and to touch them up with strange otherworldly colours and on occasion add to what was in a photograph by painting in what should have been there: the British Resident, detained by business in Delhi or Calcutta, might for example be added to a durbar scene. It may not have been what actually happened when the photo was snapped, but it did reflect a sort of courtly truth about the close relationship between the desert kingdom and the British Raj.
The photographs bridged the different sides of Ganga Singh’s world: irrigation channels turn the desert into a vast croquet lawn; fakirs dance on unsheathed swords; Ganga Singh steps out of his landau to be weighed against gold. There is an almost surreal quality to many of these images: a Thakur—or gentleman landowner—is shown sitting Canute-like on a throne in the middle of a lake, attempting to escape the worst of the savage summer heat. His throne is supported on a platform no more than six square feet, yet squeezed onto it—a near physical impossibility—are three musicians, a dancing girl and a bearer. Around the edge of the platform bob the heads of other retainers, waiting on their master’s bidding.
Karen Knorr on her travels through India has been particularly attracted to Rajasthan, and within Rajasthan perhaps especially the oddly surreal world of Bikaner. She understands intimately and is drawn imaginatively to the world that remains there, and also, intuitively to the imagined and constructed Rajasthan of photography. Like the images commissioned by Ganga Singh and so many other Rajasthani princes of the period, her work takes a stately reality and touches it up, improves on it, forcing us to look twice, to make imaginative links and to think through the images in a way we had not previously done.
The odd yet witty juxtapositions are not quite surreal—there are no impossibilities here: no fur cups, melting clocks or levitating bowler hats. But the images are set in a world of almost make-believe, a once-upon-a-time-there-was-a-beautiful-princess-who-lived-in-a-palace universe, and they do have a strong element of the magical and absurd: peahens perched on ladders as if busy supervising the cleaning and restoration of the sandstone mihrab of Akbar’s mosque at Fatehpur Sikri; a black bear and a Sarus crane holding court in the Juna Mahal durbar hall at Dungarpur, while nearby a lion nuzzles its mate intimately under a miniature of a bathing courtesan. In the painted havelis of Nawalgarh a watchful lady monkey goes for a ride on a baby elephant who stops in the middle of the courtyard, apparently intent on chatting with a passing hoopoe. As the conversation develops, the elephant, perhaps a triple embarrassed, swings its rear right leg awkwardly against its left, like two noblemen who have been trying to avoid each other meeting unexpectedly on their way from the court to stables.
The image of the famous cloud room at the Junagarh fort in Bikaner is a case in point. The room is celebrated for its almost psychedelic mural scheme where the entire room is covered from ceiling to floor with the image of swirling monsoon rain clouds and snake-like whorls of lightning—the ultimate meteorological fantasy in the hot, dry heart of the Thar desert where rain never falls. It is a room animated at every level by unreality—yet Karen Knorr has staged a mis-en-scene from the Theatre of the Absurd and amplifies the fantasy further by filling this tiny room with the quizzical image of a black buck—alert, startled, ready to leap through the window in a single movement. It is wholly out of place, yet not: the whorls on the buck’s horns echoes the cumulus swirls on the murals; there is a common elegance and princely poise. The buck is not meant to be there—or, on second thoughts, is it?
None of these situations are inherently impossible; but they are hugely unlikely and they take us aback and startle us. It is as if these grand, princely settings have been cleared of humanity and taken over by a world full of sagacious speaking animals, like some Indian Narnia, or the Just So Stories of Kipling or Vikram Seth’s Beastly Tales. All these different worlds of wise animals stories have their deepest origins in some of the most famous works of Sanskrit literature: the Hitopadesha, improving animal fables originally written for the Queen of Kashmir in the early centuries AD, the Panchatantra and the Katha Sarit Sagara or the Ocean of the Sea of Stories, the collection of animal stories about Lion Kings and wicked jackal viziers that moved gradually westwards, being translated in antiquity into more than fifty languages and over two hundred distinct versions, and in the end inspired, among other works, Aesop’s Fables and more recently Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
For like the Panchatantra’s lion Pingalaka, the king of the forest, and Sanjivaka, the bull who is his oldest friend, these animals have not randomly walked into these forts and cave temples of painted mansions: from the proprietorial stance of the lion in his bedroom at Samode, it is clear that is his home, and it is we who are the intruders, not him. Equally, the tiger rubbing its back on the masnad in the Takhat Vilas of Mehrangarh clearly feels a sense of entitlement about his chosen place of relaxation.
In this imaginative universe of mimicry, of apes aping human foibles and stalks stalking the corridors of princely power, there are clear hierarchies of courtiers: the pacing crane strutting through the arcades of the Samode zanana has the air of an aged vizier, perhaps on this way to see the lioness rani in her quarters. The langur sitting on the jali screen could well be the harem guard, surprised by the crane’s visit. The rhesus macaque on the princely charpoy in aam khas of Dungarpur is apparently deep in conversation with his chief of secret police, a golden oriole. The tiger pacing Karauli palace looks around angrily, as if the photographer, like Coleridge’s Person from Porlock, has startled the poet-prince mid-couplet and made him forget his metre.
The presence of the animals adds to the sense of unreality and exoticism inherent in these extraordinary settings: they enhance the feeling of otherworldliness generated by these lovely, magical interiors, with their oblique light filtering into through filigree lattices into painted interiors. Here the magical, the princely and the world of nature interact intimately on the wall paintings: Krishna plays his flute to Radha in the forests of Vrindavan and the Ganga descends onto the head of Shiva on Mount Kailash on the same walls as images of maharajas playing holi or riding out to hunt boar or herds of black buck, or riding past lakes full of bathing elephants. In the Dungarpur Juna Mahal, Krishna in the form of a blue baby floats innocently on a leaf, surrounded by lily pads, waiting to be discovered by the sage Markandeya so that he can reveal to him that he is both Time and Death. Yet below the scene set in distant cosmic time, a caparisoned elephant rides out to war, Manganiyar singers serenade the maharaja below his fort and the serpent Kaliya raises his hood at Lord Krishna—only to be banished by the God to the great ocean.
This is, in other words, a porous world without imaginative boundaries, where time and memory are skewed and unstable, and where the courtly, the magical, the animal and divine merge seamlessly into each other. It is little wonder that this Rajasthani palacescape would be somewhere that would capture the magpie eye of Karen Knorr. Throughout her artistic life, Knorr has searched for the magnificently strange or the grandly magical, and enhanced that quality of absurdity or unreality in a way that is at once witty and knowing yet also loving and respectful. Seeing the absurdity of the rococo social codes of Palladian London clubland, she raises a mirror to its formality and makes it appear even more stiff than it already is. Attracted by the galleries of great museums full of marble nudes, she parks real naked women on the parquet floors of the Louvre, their warm blood, dark skin and fluffy pubic hair offsetting and wittily undermining the bloodless elegance of the cold white marble of Canova’s busts.
There are knowing echoes of Robert Polidoris’s work on the restoration of Versailles in some images—especially the wonderful peahen dusting the Mughal mosques—and the same quality of the strangeness of posed tableau vivant formality that you see in Charlotte Cory’s Cabinet of Curiosities—her striking series of Victorian visiting cards with animal heads—or Boyd Webb’s large-scale, Surreal-like cibachromes, or indeed Tom Hunter’s echoes of Pre-Raphaelite images transposed to the allotments and pub snooker halls of East End London Gangsterland. Yet this work remains utterly original: no one but Karen Knorr could have produced the arresting shots of India Song, dislocated as they are in space and time, and her unmistakable stamp is on every image. In my view, it is her finest body of work.