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RANA COURT PHOTOGRAPHERS

It is but ironical that it has now become fashionable for many Nepalese households and public places such as restaurants and bars to display photographs of the Rana rulers of Nepal and their families, the men with their military decorations covering their broad chests, with plumed crowns on their heads and women bedecked in beautiful diamond and emerald encrusted tiaras and other pieces of sparkling jewelry set on valuable metal. Ask the owners and many would not recognize who those Rana figures are; it is merely the proximity to power, fame and now what is considered to be a fascinating period of history that people vicariously yearn for. A mere couple of decades back the Rana rulers were reviled as autocrats but in the intervening years people have come to realize that whosoever comes to power in Nepal aspires to be a Rana anyway!

Scrutinizing carefully the portraits and pictures of old Nepal one can sometimes discern the faint names of the photographers or photographic studio these pictures come from. If the pictures are from the period of Rana prime ministers Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana and Ranauddip Singh Rana, they would invariably come from the studio of Bourne and Shepherd. The period between 1860 and 1900 was covered by the lens of Samuel Bourne who visited Nepal with his assistants and a full studio in tow. Cameras were very rudimentary and clumsy equipment then and the pictures were produced on 10x12 inch photographic plate by cumbersome process called Wet Plate Collodian.

Portrait of Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana by Samuel Bourne
If one looks closely at pictures from 1930 to 1945, one can see that these were developed by Studio Matzene. Time brought technological advances in the art of photography and photographic films were discovered. One sees the name Matzene embossed on portraits of Maharajah Bhim Shumsher and his family and also Maharajah Juddha Shumsher and family. Just who were these photographers who took these historical portraits and photographs in Nepal and how did they get here at a time when very few foreigners were allowed to set foot in the country? We need to closely look at the life and times of Samuel Bourne and Richard Gordon Matzene.

Samuel Bourne
Samuel Bourne came from England to India in 1863 A.D. as a young man of 29 where he did his most impressionable body of work photographing monuments, Himalayan vistas and aristocracy. He teamed up with another photographer Charles Shepherd and started Bourne and Shepherd Studio in Shimla, then the hill station frequented by the important people of the Raj. He traveled extensively in India including embarking on two successful trips to the Himalayan mountains in search of the source of River Ganges at Gangmukhi. As his renown grew the Nepalese rulers must have heard about him and his studio and Bourne was invited to Nepal to take photographs of the ruling family. We see pictures of prime minister Jung Bahadur Rana and his family in various poses and locations. He probably arrived in Nepal in 1868 A.D. as some pictures carry this date. By this time he had opened a second studio in Calcutta in 1866 and hence he must have come to Nepal from Calcutta.


Jung Bahadur's Wife with son and daughters in hunting camp by Samuel Bourne
It is quite apparent that Samuel Bourne found Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana in his hunting camp and a few pictures existing today is from this era. There are also portraits of Jung Bahadur he shot most likely in his Thapathali Durbar. It could also be possible that some of these portraits of the period were actually shot in the Bourne and Shepherd Studio in Calcutta as it is documented that Jung visited Calcutta during the early sixties, a few years after the Indian Mutiny of 1857 A.D. when Jung supported the British and jointly with British forces the Gurkhas took Lucknow. Samuel Bourne eventually returned to England and he died there in 1912. Bourne and Shepherd Studio in Calcutta closed down just a few years back in 2016.

Richard Gordon Matzene
Richard Gordon Matzene was a well-known photographer and an art dealer. Born Jens Rudolph Matzene probably in Denmark he later changed his name when he started to reside in America. He claimed to be a Count but sources do not confirm this as many Europeans took dubious royal titles to impress the Americans who still had a fondness for anything royal albeit after having thrown out British Colonial rule. Matzene first opened his studio in Chicago in 1900 and later went to Hollywood during the formative years of cinema. He took very artistic pictures of lady artists of cinema, ballet and theater of the time. He is known to have traveled extensively and opened several studios overseas, one in Shanghai and the other in Shimla, by now the summer capital of the British Raj.


 Maharajah Bhim Shumsher and his youngest wife Sita Badamaharani with daughter by Matzene
Matzene came to Nepal to take official portraits of the Rana rulers of the time. True or false a book on his life claims that he was the 27th foreigner to get a visa to visit Nepal. It is more likely that it was in the Shimla studio of Matzene that the Rana rulers of Nepal and their families took their official portraits. Prime ministers Bhim and Juddha went there for this purpose during their official visits to India. My father General Kiran Shumsher Rana definitely visited the Matzene Studio in Shimla for his family photographs. The author of a book on Matzene Marcela Sirhandi visited Nepal in search of material to write, "Royal Nepal: Through the Lens of Richard Gordon Matzene". I had the opportunity to meet her but her collection of photographs was already complete from eclectic sources and it was too late for me to hand over to her our family portraits. Matzene's photographic works and his oriental art collections are housed in University of Oklahoma and Ponca City Library in Oklahoma.

Marcela Sirhandi's book on Rana portraits by Matzene
Many Nepalese photographers were subsequently trained. One of the first Rana family member to become fascinated with this new art form was Major General Dambar Shumsher, younger half-brother of Maharajah Bir Shumsher. He raised Nepalese photographic standard to new heights training local aspiring photographers with his active encouragement. This love of portraiture was further carried on by his son Samar Shumsher and his famous artist-poet-dramatist grandson Bala Krishna Sama. They must all have been highly influenced by the technique applied by Samuel Bourne and later by Richard Gordon Matzene, two of the best photographers of their respective time the British Raj was blessed with.






       

Comments

  1. Impressive research! So true that old Rana family photographs are found these days in the most incongruous of places.

    Diverging slightly, with smartphone cameras so handy now, the days of photography as an art is probably on the way out.

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  2. This is a great write up. Years from now there is little doubt that history students including history buffs will read these fascinating, unique stories that are written here and this one about Rana portraits is a great example of what people will find so very interesting, including Subodh's well thought out perspectives. Keep em coming.

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