What’s the most common object in the world right now? A smartphone. Almost everyone has one and where there’s a smartphone, there’s a selfie. Anywhere and everywhere one can see people whipping out their smartphones from their pockets, holding them up, adjusting and tilting the camera for the perfect angle and light, and clicking a selfie. We all indulge in it. Whether it is to flaunt a new hairdo, cherish some moments with your bestie or reveal to the world that you voted this election, selfies are a vital part of our existence—so much so that in the year 2013, the Oxford dictionary declared ‘selfie’ as the word of the year.
I think the first idea of selfies began when European painters began painting self-portraits.? If you think selfies are a modern phenomenon, think again as Indian royals have been doing it for quite some time. Did you know that the first actual selfie was clicked by an Indian in the 19th century? In 1880, Maharaja Bir Chandra Manikya, king of Tripura, and his queen Maharani Khuman Chanu Manmohini Devi were the subjects of the world’s first selfie.
The couple had an ardent love for the arts and photography. At that time, photography was common among the Europeans but extremely rare in India. The Maharaja was only the second royal to ever possess a camera, the first being Raja Deen Dayal of Indore. Along with a passion for photography, he was also a talented architect and is accredited with planning modern Agartala. History says that he was a progressive monarch and encouraged reforms in Tripura while encouraging his subjects to have forward-thinking ideas. It is not surprising that such a man was behind the world’s first selfie.
The selfie shows the king and his beloved wife in a close embrace. If you look carefully at the photograph, you will see the king’s hand resting on a device to the right. The device functions as a lever connected to the camera by a long wire. Pull the lever and voilà! The picture is taken. That is how the king and the queen captured their tender moment without anybody 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.
M K Pragya Deb Burman, convenor of INTACH Tripura Chapter and a descendant of the late Maharaja