Take a peek into a fascinating 19 century India with its bejewelled royalty, grand forts, and the common man in the studio at the ongoing Raja Deen Dayal photo exhibition

We take photographs so mindlessly, so effortlessly on our cellphones and all-ready digital cameras. We’re always clickling, obsessing with selfies. But what about the 1800s and 1900s in India? When photography was just beginning to become popular, the bellow camera was in vogue, and commoners were going to studios to be photographed? When royalty was still living plush lives and going out on shikaars?

That’s the enticing world the exhibition of Raja Deen Dayal’s photographs draws you into. The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) Bengaluru and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) have brought this exhibition to Bangalore.

Deen Dayal (1844-1905) was educated as an engineer, before working as a draughtsman with the secretariat office in Indore. He took up photography as a hobby, but was quick to learn the ropes. And with the right patronage, his photographic career spanned a good three decades (1874-1905).

The exhibition takes you through Dayal’s life, his commissioned documentation of heritage monuments of central India, facets of colonial India, and portraits of princely rulers. Deen Dayal was the court photographer to Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, and the then Viceroy of India. In 1887 he received the Royal Warrant of appointment as photographer to Queen Victoria — the warrant was usually given to those who supplied goods and services to the British, to recognize them, and for them to use as advertising. He was given the title of “Raja”.

“Deen Dayal’s name is today synonymous with 19th century photography,” says a note from the exhibition’s curator Himani Pande. “He was also the only Indian photographer of the time to hold his own amongst other European photographic studios.” The exhibition in Bangalore is of 150 photographs that have been digitally printed from the original negatives. “We must remember that photography came to India in the 1840s and by the mid-19th century there were photographic societies and journals in the then Bombay, Calcutta and Madras,” says Vikram Sampath, author, and IGNAC’s southern regional centre executive director, placing Deen Dayal in a historic context of Indian photography. In 1989, Deen Dayal’s family donated nearly 2900 glass plate negatives, studio registers, letters, cameras, lenses, and studio props for preservation. Much of the information comes from here. In 1899, Dayal wrote A Short Account of My Photographic Career.

The little curatorial note by the side of Deen Dayal’s portrait, the opening shot of this bearded, turbaned man at the exhibition says that the photo’s duplicate negatives show attempts to touch up and erase his signs of leucoderma – one of the earliest “airbrushed” picture, so to speak?

A series of his family photographs taken in-studio, set the tone for the kind of portraits and family photographs to come — all the seating in neat arrangements, everyone dressed for the occasion, sitting on ornate chairs on thick carpets, with fading painted scenery for a backdrop. The portraits go beyond the individual and offer visual commentary on so many levels — clothing of the time, jewellery, status, how people want to be seen, and see themselves.

There is the stunning portrait of a woman wearing heavy jewellery, posing elegantly with a hand fan, standing next to a table with three books piled on it — to suggest a woman of wealth and literature.

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. He had a separate zenana studio for Indian women to be photographed by a foreign woman photographer — one if the reasons why a large number of porraits of women exists in the collection, ranging from daning girls in poses, to European women, and Indian royalty as well as commoners. His photos of colonial India were used to familiarise guests with areas they were going to visit. He captured the tours of British royalty and visitors, Viceroys and the like, which were used in commemorative albums — a lucrative business for the studio.

Deen Dayal’s pictures also offer great insight into the photography techniques in vogue at the time. 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 panaromic 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. A great example is the imposing entrance to the Faluknama Palace. The curator also draws our attention to how Dayal used a high perch to station his camera to capture the vastness of ceremonial and religious events. His style of “aesthetic-meets-documentation” comes through as you walk though images of grand forts, palaces, places of worship. Also, his ability to use light to bring out lines, curves, domes, towers and their intricate architectural details is compelling. Even with interiors of grand palaces, on ceremonial occasions with people all standing or seated in a row, the attention to details is arresting.

In the palace photographs your attention is drawn to the “gaze” — whether it’s the king’s or the photographer’s …What is reflected in his collective body of work, is that he was primarily taking photographs for a patron who had commissioned it.

His photographs have also allowed historians to see the development of India over a few decades. Deen Dayal’s photographs are often compared against those taken by noted British photographer Samuel Bourne who photographed India widely through the 1860s up until 1870.

There is a curiosity to see what the exhibition may hold from south India, outside the Hyderebad of today. Deen Dyal, being the Nizam’s court photographer, wandered into his territories Gulbarga, Bidar, and Bijapur in the 1880s to capture the Mahmud Gawan Madrasa, the dargahs, and the incomplete Bara Kaman.

The Maras High Court picture taken in about 1892 is perhaps one of the earliest “aerial view” pictures, where a high platform was constructed at a vantage point specially to take the photographs from!

What lends the photographs some perspective is the little note accompanying each of them. You will need time on hand if you intend to really read and see.

The exhibition will be on view till July 20 at the NGMA, Manikyavelu Mansion, Palace Road, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Except on Mondays and National holidays).

DON’T MISS:

*A 1903 studio portrait of Ranjitsinhji, the Maharaja of Nawanagar, in whose name the Ranjhi trophy was established. He’s seen not in royal robes, but in a jacket, tie, and leaning, all swashbuckling on his cricket bat.

*Nawab Ghalib Jung and his fascinated European and Indian friends listening to the first phonograph in Hyderabad. Almost everyone’s got stethoscope-like tubes in their ears and are centred around the huge and complicated instrument, a precursor to the more modern gramophone.

*A 1890 photo of a group of friends, some trying to be cool, some uncomfortable, posing in the studio with nautch girls, one guy with a bottle of alcohol in front of him, and glass in hand!

*Architectural photographs of Central India