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Raja Deen Dayal, the Unsung Legend Behind Some of India’s Oldest & Rarest Photos

India’s first world-class photographer, this low-ranking engineer found his first patron in Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore and was bestowed the title of “Raja Deen Dayal” by the Nizam of Hyderabad! #History #UntoldStories

Although photography came to India in 1840, it wasn’t until 1874 that Lala Deen Dayal, a public works department employee in Indore, became the first Indian to make his mark in the medium. Until the arrival of ‘Raja Deen Dayal’, British photographers expressly dominated the medium where they captured and documented the architectural marvels of this land.

Born to a family of jewellers in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1840s, Dayal graduated from the Thompson College of Civil Engineering at Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee) in 1866 as a low ranking engineer. During his days working as an engineer in Indore, Dayal first picked up a passion for photography capturing different monuments using glass plate technology, which preceded photographic film as a medium to capture objects.

In 1874, Dayal decided to go full time into photography. Like any other art form of its time, particularly something as profoundly new as photography, it needed patronage, particularly from the royalty and the wealthy. His first patron was Maharaja Tukoji Rao of Indore, who alongside Sir Lepel Griffin, agent to the Governor General of the Central Provinces, encouraged the budding photographer not only to hone his craft but also set up his first studio in Indore.

Raja Deen Dayal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Raja Deen Dayal (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“According to his Memoirs, he was thus able to obtain the patronage of Lord North Brook, the Governor General of India, in 1874. He accompanied Sir Lepel Griffin on his Central India tour during which he photographed views of Gwalior, Khajuraho and other sites in Central India,” says the website dedicated to Dayal.

Dayal’s unique skill set in using light, finding different angles and equipment, attracted many wealthy clients from the British colonial elite and Indian royals. Just two years after he had gone full time, word of his talents spread far and wide.

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The two years he spent travelling, photographing grand buildings and personages with equal vigour, convinced Deen Dayal that he could become a full-time lensman, writes historian Manu S Pillai for the Mint.

What this exercise resulted in was a portfolio of 86 photographs known as “Famous Monuments of Central India”.

Chowmahalla Palace taken in the 1880s. (Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)
Chowmahalla Palace taken in the 1880s.

The British royal family commissioned him to produce a portrait of the Prince of Wales. A little over a decade later, in 1887, Dayal had become “Photographer to Her Majesty the Queen [Victoria]”. Such was his talents that the Maharaja of Indore even granted him an estate—a guaranteed source of income, which allowed him to focus solely on photography.

According to Rupika Chawla, who wrote the biography of the famous painter Raja Ravi Varma, this pioneer “brought to photography what Ravi Varma brought to paintings—the pomp and grandeur of kings . . . with the documentation of places and events.”

Despite expressing themselves through different mediums, Ravi Varma and Dayal were, in certain ways, rivals for the patronage among India’s most influential and wealthy.

Circa 1890. (Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)
Circa 1890.

According to one account of 1902, the Nizam of Hyderabad had not merely refused to accord Raja Ravi Varma the reception he was used to from his other royal patrons, but also did not buy a single one of his paintings. Coming to the Nizam’s court at the invitation of Dayal, the famous painter felt deeply slighted and blamed his host for not doing enough to promote his cause.

However, Dayal had no reason to slight him since his place in the court was already secured with the Nizam conferring the title of ‘Raja’ to the photographer.

The Purana Pul Bridge (Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)
The Purana Pul Bridge

So happy was the Nizam with the portrait Dayal had captured that he even wrote a couplet for him:

Ajab yeh karte hain tasvir mein kamaal kamaal, Ustaadon ke hain ustaad Raja Deen Dayal (In the art of photography, he surpasses all. The Master of Masters is Raja Deen Dayal).

It was in 1884, when the sixth Nizam, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, appointed Dayal as the official court photographer. It was a position fraught with risks considering the presence of many skilled European photographers, but it was his ability to step outside his comfort zone that kept him above the fray.

Through his studios across Secunderabad, Indore and Mumbai, Dayal captured an estimated 30,000 photographs of monuments, people, and events.

“While the studio decided how the subject should pose, apparently, Dayal’s studio offered interesting ‘Hints to Sitters’—where they list colours of clothing that are suitable for photography, how you can choose your own pose and the studio will still do a good job of the photograph! And then, how, though it is trouble shooting children, and many plates may go wasted, the studio doesn’t charge extra! Deen Dayal also appears to have been an enterprising man. His studio had a catalogue of prints for sale—unmounted copies of 8*5 inch size sold for 12 annas,” says this profile in The Hindu.

One of the fascinating aspects of Dayal’s photography was how he treated his women subjects. He had an entire studio in Mumbai dedicated to women, where he employed a woman photographer, albeit a foreigner.

Various portraits of women were taken across the class divide; from royalty to commoners.

(Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)

“His portraits speak a lot about the lifestyle, fashion, ornaments and the furniture of those times. The discrimination in society and the status of women shows in group photos (in their posture and way of standing). It’s as if the legendary lensman has documented the visual history of his times for posterity,” says Himani Pande, an archivist, in a conversation with The Indian Express.

Dayal often employed techniques that were already in fashion, offering three-dimensional perspectives.

“He infuses a three-dimensional perspective into photographs—street photographs of Hyderabad around the Char Minar, which give an idea of depth, monument photographs with expansive foregrounds, using lines in the buildings or lanes around to suggest its depth etc. By the 1890s panoramic views of sites constructed by joining contiguous segments had become common, says one of the curatorial notes.

“And Dayal put it to good use to create images of grandeur for the Nizam of the architecture in his kingdom,” says The Hindu.

Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad ca 1880. (Credit: Raja Deen Dayal. )
Mecca Masjid, Hyderabad circa 1880.

Dayal had a thriving practice with the Times of India in 1896 describing his Bombay studio as “the most splendidly equipped photographic salon in the East”.

Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he struggled to keep his vast empire of black and white photos intact. When he passed away in 1905, his son, Gyan Chand, tried to keep the enterprise alive, but struggled and eventually thousands of glass plate negatives were sold as scrap material in a local Hyderabad market.

Despite unfortunate circumstances and the evolution of photography in the digital age, the legacy Dayal leaves behind remains intact.

Udaipur, Rajasthan in 1880s. (Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)
Udaipur, Rajasthan in 1880s.

In 1989, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) bought 2,857 glass plate negatives from the collection left in Dayal’s studios. It remains a splendid repository of his work. His photographs have also crossed boundaries with exhibitions of his images still being conducted to this day.

If there was ever a pioneer of photography in India, it was Raja Deen Dayal.

(Credit: Raja Deen Dayal)

(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)

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