The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto is attracting a lot of attention with its current exhibit titled Between Princely India and the British Raj: The Photography of Raja Deen Dayal.

On display are many rare photographs by the most well-known and prolific photographer of 19th-century India. His images “capture the architectural heritage of India, its landscape and people, and provide a lens through which we can explore a dynamic time in India’s history.” In fact, says Dr Deepali Dewan, senior curator at the ROM and faculty member of the University of Toronto’s Centre for South Asian Studies, this is the “first solo exhibit in North America featuring original vintage prints by Deen Dayal.”

Dr Dewan has a special interest in Dayal’s photographic works as she is co-author of the recently published book, Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photographer in 19th Century India. Written with Dr Deborah Hutton, associate professor of Asian and Islamic art history at the College of New Jersey, this beautifully presented work is full of fascinating information about an unforgettable era. The abundant photographs and detailed notes that accompany each one of them make the reading of it absolutely delightful.

How and when did you first come across the photographs of Dayal, I asked Dr Dewan. “In graduate school there were not many opportunities to research 19th century art photography in India. Deen Dayal really was the main person; he was the best known Indian photographer as the rest were Europeans. So I wrote a paper on him by gathering and piecing together sources of which there was not a lot. There were many images but not much information. My colleague and co-author Deborah Hutton who was studying Islamic art and also writing a paper on Dayal had the same complaint. She had suggested that we do a book on him after we graduate. Ten years ago we embarked on it and found way more than we initially thought we would. The book became not just about Deen Dayal but also about South Asia’s engagement with photography.

“In many ways it is a case study to see the complexities of South Asia in visual culture. It is not just a reproduction of European photography. And visual culture is not just art and films, it is also street art and there is a technique to read it. South Asia has multiple languages and varying levels of literacy. Visual really was the main medium there. It is no coincidence that one of the largest film industries in the world is based in South Asia. Visuals are also a way to understand history.” Deen Dayal (1844-1905) was a fascinating man in many ways. Born near Meerut in North India to a Jain family of jewellers, he went to engineering college where he trained for two years to become a land surveyor. Fluent in Urdu and English, he worked as a draftsman and estimator in the Public Works Department at Indore. It was not long before he started to take photographs of the landscapes and architecture of the places he visited in the course of his employment. According to family lore, his first camera was given to him by an English neighbour who was returning home.

Dayal taught himself photography from imported manuals and became so engrossed in his hobby that in 1885 he took a two-year leave from work in order to travel around the country and establish himself as a photographer. He used this time wisely by making contact with Viceroy Lord Dufferin and through him other members of the colonial elite. One of the most important projects he undertook was the photographing of military exercises in Panipat at the invitation of Sir Fredrick Roberts, the Commander- in-Chief of the British Indian Army.

At the end of the two years Dayal had established himself not only as one of the best photographers in the country, but also a commercially viable one. When his leave ended he chose not to return to his job; instead he moved to the princely state of Hyderabad and opened a studio there.

The move to Hyderabad was not an unusual one; it was common practice for ambitious individuals who lived in various parts of India to try their luck in its largest and wealthiest princely state. In Dayal’s case the gamble paid off because he soon received the patronage of Mahbub Ali Khan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, who bestowed on him the title ‘Raja Bahadur Mussavir Jung’. His photographs appeared in two British weeklies. One copy landed in the hands of Queen Victoria who promptly issued a royal warrant appointing him ‘Photographer to Her Imperial Majesty the Queen-Empress of India’. This honour, not accorded to any other Indian, was made particularly remarkable by the fact that Dayal never left the subcontinent.

Dayal shot nearly 30,000 images of India, its nobility and its British rulers. He is the primary recorder of Hindu rajas and Muslim nawabs with all their palaces, parades, and jewels. He photographed shikars, military manoeuvres, as well as royal visits. His female staff included a photographer who took images of women who wished to remain in purdah. The evidence regarding these zenana photographs is difficult to locate as both the negative and the print were handed over to the customer. Dr Dewan is convinced that they must be stuffed in people’s almaaris, waiting to be shown the light of day.

In the subcontinent, perhaps the best known Dayal photographs are those of the Delhi Durbar held in 1903 to celebrate the coronation of King Edward VII. Readers of history books will be familiar, even if unknowingly, with his images of Viceroy Lord Curzon making a grand entrance atop an elephant. Dayal’s legacy is such that it still influences the way we and the rest of the world see British India. Raja Sahib captured for future generations images of what turned out to be the last days of an empire.

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