The full range and variety of Raja Deen Dayal’s photographs in the collection of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts are presented in all their sepia-tinted splendour at the exhibition of his work in the tacky art gallery of Bhasha Bhavan (Sept 5-16).
He had access to the nobility of princely states and was a very successful practitioner, who had endeared himself to the ruling British for the magic he made with light.
He became one of the best-known names in the history of Indian photography then dominated by Europeans. Equipped with his heavy bellow camera, he could capture a fleeting expression (as in his own portraits), the fine details of exquisite embroidery, intricate wood or stone work and the grandeur of Fatehpur Sikri with a perfection that few professionals can match today.
Raja Deen Dayal had a flourishing practice in Bombay, and his studio was so lavishly appointed that it was said to be one of the most splendid in the East. It was patronized by both natives and Europeans.
We see here his portraits of the potentates in full regalia, the panoramic shots of archaeological wonders, “native characters” — performers and mendicants who were a common sight in the streets but had an exotic appeal to the West — and his group photographs and remarkable crowd scenes where a swirling ocean of humanity comes to a standstill for an instant on his glass plates. These large prints were produced using the negatives in the IGNCA archives.
According to an IGNCA handout, shabbily printed and littered with literals, Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905) came from a middle-class Jain family from Sardhana near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. He was trained as a civil engineer and joined the public works department of Indore, where his work drew the attention of the Maharaja of Indore, Tukaji Rao II, in the mid-1870s. He opened a commercial studio in Indore. There is a photograph here taken outside it.
His big break came when he joined the mission of Sir Lepel Griffin to document the architectural heritage of central India: he thus established himself as a photographer with the Archaeological Survey of India as his patron. He worked as official photographer to several viceroys.
From 1885 till his death in Bombay, Raja Deen Dayal became the official photographer of Nizam VI of Hyderabad, and this exhibition is a celebration of that productive period when he would carry his studio to the palace to take formal portraits of the bedizened courtiers, princes and princesses, often in Western clothes as was the fashion of those times. Besides intimate glimpses of the palace interiors, we see both Nizam VI and King George V on a shikar. The captions — some are missing — provide interesting technical details.