WHEN photography was at its nascent stages, Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905) was wielding his camera with skill in India, delighting the rulers and recording images of the world around him for posterity. The first permanent photography was made in 1826 by a Frenchman. When Deen Dayal stepped into this magical world of ‘picture’ it was little known in India. And hence, the rich and the ruling hogged the limelight, getting portraits done of them and their family.
But Deen Dayal was not a mere family photographer. He travelled all over the country capturing in his camera the architecture that impressed him, the structures that struck a chord in him and the people and lifestyles that fascinated him. The result is a huge spectrum of themes. The images were stored as glass plate negatives, the largest collection of his now housed at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi. There are 2,857 glass plate negatives in its archives.
Born in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, near Meerut in a family of jewelers, Deen Dayal studies at the Thompson College of Civil Engineering Roorkee (later IIT Roorkee). He took to photography in 1874 and his talent was spotted by Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore state, who in turn introduced him to the British rulers. With such royal patronage and encouragement, he started his career that brought him fame and fortune. Today, his glass plate negatives are one of the valuable antiques not only for their age but also as documentation.
In a rare exhibition, more than 200 photographs were shown at the IGNCA recently. The images had a breath-taking clarity and revealed the eye of the photographer for aesthetics and details. Some of the sweeping shots of large expanse of scenery could have been done only by a pro, putting his utmost skill and instinct to work.
The palaces of Indian kings and nawabs decorated in a copy-cat European style, with overflowing curtains, chandeliers and ostentatious furniture, the members of the royal family draped in jewels and fine silk and the animals they rode – horses and elephants and their palanquins have all been caught in the camera by Deen Dayal. The details in the images are source material for history students and lifestyle studies.
Among one of the most beautiful pictures at the exhibition was the Tuljabhavani mandir, Tuljapur, Maharashtra, taken in 1895. He took the photograph from the outer wall of the shrine. There was the telling picture of the Indian royalty queuing up to pay tribute and obeisance to the Viceroy in India on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth ascending the throne.
What is remarkable about the photographs of Deen Dayal was that he went beyond the routine technical capacity of the photographic technique of the time and presented many marvels, which fascinate even today’s photo enthusiasts. The modern architecture of the British in India — in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras gain an aesthetic blending in his shots, not standing out from the surroundings.
Architecture occupies an enormous part of the collection. The nawab of Hyderabad, who patronised him by making him an official in the palace, has been clicked in several poses. The tiger skins arranged on the floor to show off the prowess of the nawab gives the creep to an animal lover. Nearly all the kings have got their official portrait done by Deen Dayal, who travelled relentlessly.
Indeed he wrote poetry with his camera.