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Vintage virtuoso

Raja Deen Dayal's photographs record the ebb and flow of an India that once was

THE RUDE arch of yellow basalt thrusts its haughty form into the city's skyline just above a little promontory lapped by the green sludgy waters of the Arabian Sea. Yet, once that vaulting Gateway of India was the arch of triumph for an empire on which the sun never set and the first glimpse of these storied shores for generations of Englishmen. A forgotten monument to an era that ended in its shadows, its originally splendour now lives in the sepia-toned photographs of a pioneering 19th century photographer.

Conferred a title normally reserved for nobility, a chronicler of his times, photographer to the then Empress of India, Queen Victoria and Prince among photographers - Raja Deen Dayal (1844-1905).

Kalakriti, is hosting an exhibition and sale of prints from a collection of thirteen photographs by Raja Deen Dayal. "The photographs have been sourced from the studios of Deen Dayal's great-grandsons - Nareshchand and Vinit. The photographs are all urban landscapes of some of India's cities and our architectural heritage. We chose pictures of buildings and monuments as some still stand and all of us relate to them," says Prshant Lahoti, owner of the gallery. The exhibition also includes pictures from the family collection.

The photographer's exquisite record of colonial and princely India includes its decadent opulence, its whiskered nobility and hookah bearers, hunts and parades, elephant carriages, forts and views and memorials. Through black and white photography and early techniques and rudimentary equipment, Raja Deen Dayal, through his subjects, portrays a picture of his times. His extensive series of Indian views form a timeless travelogue of the country. The memsahibs having tea at the `Bombay Yacht Club' (1911) overlook the site where the Gateway of India came up later that year. `The Writer's Building' at Calcutta (1899) with plumed horsemen and gilded carriages presents a very different look from the sight of the multitudinous people jostling in the same place today. A panorama of the `Madras High Court Buildings' (1899) shows orderly patches of green and a tram on the move. In the foreground is the steeple of Anderson's church. The picture conveys an unhurried pace of life. Today, the trams are long gone and the eaves on the roof of the church are crumbling. Hyderabad where, Raja Deen Dayal set up a studio is represented through the splendour of the `Falaknuma Palace' (1890) and the architectural grandeur of the `Charminar' (1890).

A `Jain temple at Sonagir' (1882), the play of light and shade on the sculptures at the `Ellora Caves' and the mystical `Taj' shot from the opposite river bank shows people lounging on the now missing ghats. `Gwalior Fort's' turquoise inlaid ramparts and Bombay's solitary `Rajabai Clock Tower' complete the compilation of photographs on monuments.

`The Badminton Party' (1890) has a sprinkling of nets, heavily dressed players and white suited retainers in the distance while `Royal Reception' (1911) has lancers at the ready, flags fluttering awaiting the landing of King George V and Queen Mary. The last is a self-portrait of the bearded, white turbaned maestro.

Deen Dayal's pictures offer vivid insights into India's rich heritage and provide valuable testimonials for history. They describe the ethos of an age and offer intimate glimpses into the vistas of monuments and the lives of the elite and the ordinary.

The exhibition is on till May 5 at Kalakriti Art Gallery Road No: 10, Banjara Hills.


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