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Image: Wilson Studios Bombay

Portrait of Maharani Kusum Kunwarba  c. 1930

gelatin silver print

45.9 x 34.7 cm

courtesy of the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) (Bengaluru)


Wilson Studios Bombay

by Gael Newton AM, independent curator and writer

It is highly unlikely that the founders and operators of Wilson Studios, operational in Bombay from c. 1920–40, looked back to William Johnson’s clever Bombay montages of the 1850s, but their distinctive portraits share the same fusion of the real and the fantastical. Montage images by William Johnson can be viewed here.


In constructing their portraits, Wilson Studios drew on well-established styles of hand colouring and other elaborate decorative techniques used in Indian portraits for all classes. Of particular influence was the famous Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma, who at the turn of the century had popularised a blend of photorealism, role playing, decoration and moody atmosphere in his portraits. These were widely disseminated as prints and posters, placing a distinctly Indian sensibility and iconography into the visual landscape. Foreigners appear to have had no interest in this style, nor the richly decorated and hand-coloured portraiture so popular with all classes in India from the late 19th century to the late 20th century.


The Wilson Studios clientele included affluent, self-consciously chic sitters willing to embrace whimsy. In this image, like a scene from a movie, Maharani Kunwarba perches on a crescent moon swing, amongst the stars, sitting high above a night view of the Himalayas and a township ­–­­ possibly her home state of Chota Udepur in Gujarat. Done on a matte paper backdrop, this portrait would have been embellished with stencils, airbrushed ink, and paint, combining to create a slightly surreal, cinematic montage.


Wilson Studios was just as stylish as its British counterparts, such as Cecil Beaton the portrait photographer to royal and celebrity sitters. Like Beaton, Wilson Studios was influenced by Hollywood-style glamour lighting and posing. Their studio style also perfectly aligns with the role of Bombay as a centre of the robust Hindi film industry (the present day term Bollywood being a popular portmanteau of ‘Bombay’ and ‘Hollywood’) and Art Deco architecture. The era was the heyday of sophisticated lifestyles for the rich, blending Western and Indian elements. It was a heady time that was soon swept away by war and independence in the 1940s.

Image: Installation view of Visions of India: for the colonial to the contemporary featuring artworks by Wilson Studios Bombay, Hamilton Studios Ltd and Wilson Studios Bombay, Monash Gallery of Art, 2021

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