A favourite with Europeans as well as the princes of pre-Independence India, Raja Deen Dayal was India’s first celebrity photographer.
OSCAR WILDE once famously said, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” This certainly could never be true of Raja Deen Dayal. In spite of working in conditions that were restrictive in many ways, his photographs articulated a thousand words. Known for his documentation of the Maharajas and princes of India, Raja Deen Dayal also photographed important visitors to the country right from King George V of Britain to Archduke Ferdinand of France.
‘Raja Deen Dayal: The Studio Archives from the IGNCA Collection’ is displaying 200 photographs of this distinguished lensman from the archives of the IGNCA. The sepia-toned images bring out not just an old world charm but also tell stories that were untold. This is the largest exhibition of Raja Deen Dayal’s work and has been curated by art historians Dr Jyotindra Jain and Pramod Kumar KG. “The idea was to show the photographs the way they looked in Raja Deen Dayal’s time. Thus it was imperative to get the tone and colours right,” says Jain. The gallery acquired 2,857 glass plates from the descendants of Raja Deen Dayal in 1989. The exhibition goes chronologically from his early works of Indian monuments, moving on to his captures of European visitors and the grandeur of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
Most of Deen Dayal’s early works were monuments from Central India dating between 1882 and 1886, with vivid contours of the architecture against clear blue skies that often stood out as his distinct style. In photographs of the Buland Darwaza, Panchmahal or Fatehpur Sikri, he often used low angle shots to get peculiar vantage points. One of the most iconic pictures in the collection was that of the sixth Nizam shot during a shikar ritual. Being a Jain by faith, Raja Deen Dayal mockingly comments on the practice of hunting by placing the subject in an insignificant corner of the frame juxtaposed against a wall covered with tiger skins. He started making prints with the use of egg albumen and slowly moved on to using silver gelatin.
Dayal operated on a national scale—he set up studios under the name of Deen Dayal and Sons in Indore, Secunderabad and Bombay, and gained international recognition.
Born in Sardana near Meerut, Deen Dayal studied to be a civil engineer at Thomason’s Civil Engineering College at Rourkee. “He worked as a draughtsman and was responsible for documenting and photographing architectural building for the Government. Thus he may have picked up the camera,” adds Jain. He might have also taken a photography course when it was introduced in Thomason College.
His technical mastery could be sensed by the way he treated photographs. It’s a little-known fact that Raja Deen Dayal suffered from leucoderma (a skin disease where white patches appear). He masked the patches on many of own photographs with the use of paraphine wax or red colour on the problem areas. The beginnings of Photoshop, did anyone say?
Many of his works, such as his photographs of marching people, give us an illusion of movement, imparting a cinematic feel to the image.
“He shared a great rapport with the Europeans as well as the Maharajas and princes of India, which allowed him to cover his subject intimately,” says Kumar. Deen Dayal was also a personal favourite of Mir Mehboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad who appointed him to his private staff on a salary of Rs 600 per mensem (month), according to a report published in The Hindu. Having complete access to the Nizam and his activities, Deen Dayal’s work for him functions almost like an archive of the Falaknuma palace. One particularly celebrated image of the palace (on the ‘Mindspace’ page) gives us the impression of an elaborate set waiting for a performance. But Deen Dayal captured the banality of this made-up reality so cleverly that today a plethora of information can be derived merely by analysing the photographs in series. Although he was immensely successful as a photographer, he held on to his job at the Public Works Department of the British Government because it was considered quite an honour to hold a government position. He also worked as a correspondent for an English language weekly called Graphic.
So impressed was the Nizam with Deen Dayal’s artistry that he conferred upon him the title of ‘Musawwir Jung Raja Bahadur’ or ‘Bold Warrior of
photography’ and he came to be known as Raja Deen Dayal henceforth. The Nizam even composed some shaiyiri for his favourite photographer: ‘Ajab yeh karte hain tasvir mein kamaal, ustaadon ke hain ustaad Raja Deen Dayal,’ (In the art of photography, surpassing all, A master of masters is Raja Deen Dayal).
The exhibition will show at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, New Delhi, till 28 February 2011