The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The best-known Indian photographer in the late 19th century

A problem that early professional and amateur photographers in India had to deal with was an idiosyncratic and varied climate. The heat made essential chemicals unstable, the water needed for their treatment was often too full of impurities, and the fragile glass plates prone to shatter. Here, Indians had a head start as they were quick to improvise. After 1869, when the Suez Canal was opened and the import of equipment became easier, Indians entered the field of photographic entrepreneurship, their studios clones of those run by Europeans. For those action-packed hours of a much-awaited sitting, the racial divide was often set aside; it was not unknown for a Belgian technician to ‘make’ the portrait of a young Indian couple minutely supervised by the owner of the studio, also an Indian. And of course, Indian workers were indispensable in European-owned and controlled establishments.

The best-known Indian photographer of the period was Lala (later Raja) Deen Dayal (1844 -1905). Originally from Sardana (near Meerut in the United Provinces), he trained in civil engineering at Roorkee’s Thomason College. He then went on to be employed as a draftsman at the public works department at Indore. Deen Dayal’s early photographic works came to the notice of Sir Henry Daly, an influential civilian who organized for the young man to photograph the governor, General Lord Northbrook, as well as the Prince of Wales’s visit in 1875-6. Taking leave of absence from his job, Deen Dayal travelled widely, photographing monuments, metropolises and the picturesque for his album, Views of India.

Produced in the style of the times, Deen Dayal’s work reflected the colonial gaze that stressed the exotic and the beautiful, appealing to an eager viewership back in Britain. His oeuvre included architectural monuments, landscapes and portraits and also native ‘types’ of the kind that were made popular by Western professionals. Deen Dayal’s considerable and varied portfolio was indicative of an intelligent Indian’s capacity to adopt the idiom of the times. Undertaking bumpy bullock-cart rides to sites of archaeological and scenic interest, weighed down with bulky tripods, cameras and darkroom tents, the photographer was soon to display and win an award at the Columbian Commission of 1893 at Chicago.

His talent was recognized not only by the rulers but also by the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Khan, who, in 1885, appointed him court photographer. Earlier, the Nizam had been pleased with the several photographs taken of him by Deen Dayal, who had visited Hyderabad during his documentation of the archaeological heritage of India. This begun an interesting collaboration between the two men, resulting in an overwhelming body of visual material that not only recorded the panoply of the richest and most powerful prince in India, his durbars, military exercises, hunts and so on but also allowed the photographer time and space to set up his commercial establishments in Secunderabad and Indore, and later in Bombay (1896). In 1895, the Nizam bestowed the title of Raja Musavvir Jung Bahadur, do hazari wa ek hazar sawar wa alam, that entitled him to maintain a cavalry of 2,000 and to be followed by a procession of a thousand horses. Deen Dayal recorded the Delhi Durbar of 1903, an occasion when the Nizam created diplomatic history by refusing to alight from his royal train until an elephant was led into the station to bear him out.

Deen Dayal’s establishments employed over fifty persons, including British assistants and operators. He had the foresight to set up a zenana section in his studio at Secunderabad (the Nizam’s capital) that was exclusively for women, often in purdah, headed by Mrs Kenny-Levick, whose husband was a correspondent for The Times. In 1894, Deen Dayal established a luxury salon-cum-studio in Bombay and in the closing years of the 19th century, it became de rigueur for governors, generals, Indian princes, the women in their families, touring statesmen and the emergent Indian artistic, political and business elite to be ‘done’ in his lavish establishment. A catalogue introduced the salon’s reception room as one where “we have tried, regardless of expense, to provide this large room with everything that Oriental luxury and artistic taste can suggest”. Not a small compromise for one brought up in the austere traditions of Jainism.

By this time, cabinet-size photographs as well as cartes-de-visite were conveniently produced to be framed or circulated and both formats were widely used in portraiture. Raja Deen Dayal’s existing collection of 3,000 original glass plates (several others have been lost) along with some photographic equipment including a 10-inch x 12-inch studio camera and an antique magnesium flash camera are housed in the archives of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. IGNCA encourages visitors to look at its holdings — but if that is not possible, specialized exhibitions are always welcome. Thus, a recently curated show in Delhi of a careful selection of 36 photographs printed from original glass plate negatives provided a good idea of the extent of the photographer’s vision.

Some portraits that have become almost iconic of the age — for instance that of the heavily-bejewelled little daughter of the Nizam — were on view along with an interesting full-length one of “Indian beauty in Victorian Mogul Costume”. Her long wavy hair cascades down her back, her head is uncovered and she wears three-quarter length leggings intricately embossed with zardozi work covered over by an angrakha-like garment. Unlike many other women who shied away from the camera’s unrelenting gaze, she smiles widely at it. The unknown woman’s attire becomes at once a symbol of the porousness of colonialism’s interface with the colonized, a theme that is played out further in the Nizam’s drawing room.

It is in this opulent space that the Nizam met dignitaries — most of whom were possibly Europeans. Hence, the Western-style seating (as against divans and takhts with bolsters rather than cushions with braid and tassles) is arranged carefully. The heavy brocade curtains with scalloped headings fastened with rosettes, from which hang tassles are dominated by an elaborate fanlight-like ornamentation, possibly made up of a collage of stained glass. A mother-and-child statue, either in marble or alabaster, holds centre stage, while the armoires at the end of the inner room possibly housed more such objects. The court photographer had access to other private and public areas as well. The visual of the Nizam’s 240-feet-long wardrobe (the largest in the world), and that of the dining room with its ornate stucco ceiling from which hung chandeliers and a table that seated a hundred, are testimony to its owner’s penchant for display and its documentation.

Like leading photographers of the time, the Deen Dayal studios did commissioned work as well as produced portfolios with a scenic appeal. Various palaces of Indian princes, Writers’ Buildings, Calcutta, the office of the Western Railway at Marine Drive, Bombay — the last two look very different today, crowded out by highrises and urban sprawl — as well as the raj at work and play, formed part of his repertoire. The Yacht Club at Bombay, British officers on shikar or en famille in studios, picnics, soirées and so on were usual fare. His Indian clientele preferred portraiture and though Deen Dayal did spend considerable time on capturing views of perennials such as the Taj Mahal, with its bathing ghats (1887), Jhansi Fort (1892) and the Lake Palace at Udaipur among many others, the market lay abroad or among Europeans working in India. That the Indian elite with an eye for works of art has yet to value — or understand the value of — photography was evident at the Delhi exhibition where not many visuals found takers. This despite the fact that Raja Deen Dayal is a big name at Christie’s and his work had found a niche in Jaqueline Onassis’ collection.

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