Vintage Indian photography at its best – I

One of my favourite places in Bangalore, the National Gallery of Modern Art,  is celebrating my favourite passion, photography, in a most wonderful way. The NGMA is playing host to a month-long (21 June – 20 July; extended to 14 August) exhibition of vintage photographs from the collection of Raja Deen Dayal, who could easily be called the ‘Father of Indian photography’.

A photo by Raja Deen Dayal adorns an exhibition hoarding at the NGMA.

A photo by Raja Deen Dayal adorns an exhibition hoarding at the NGMA.

Raja Deen Dayal whose career spanned three decades from 1874 to 1905 was the court photographer of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan. His dazzling career also included stints as the photographer to the Viceroy of India and also Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The iconic photographer’s name is synonymous with 19th century photography in India.

Raja Deen Dayal (photo courtesy NGMA)

Raja Deen Dayal (Photo courtesy: NGMA)

Born in 1844 to a middle-class Jain family at Sardhana near Meerut, Deen Dayal was the only Indian photographer who was on par with his European peers. It is highly commendable that he excelled in spite of stiff competition from innumerable British photographic studios that dotted British India.

An 1871 photo showing Nawab Ghalib Jung and his friends listening to the first phonograph. [Photo courtesy: Hoarding at NGMA]

An 1871 photo showing Nawab Ghalib Jung and his friends listening to the first phonograph. [Photo courtesy: Hoarding at the NGMA]


The holding of this exhibition is largely thanks to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts which in 1989 got possession of 2857 glass-plate negatives from the great photographer’s estate. Most of the 150 plus photos on display are uncropped because of which visitors to the exhibition get a peek into the photo studios of those days. There are portraits of the photographer, pictures of many heritage monuments of central India, scenes from colonial India, and portraits of many maharajas and princes. Keen observers will also come to know of the difficulties the photographers of those days faced.

Deen Dayal got introduced to the camera in 1864 when he was studying engineering at Roorkee. Photography was introduced as a subject at his college. From then on there was no looking back.

Fatehsingh Rao Gaikwad of Baroda. [Picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Fatehsingh Rao Gaikwad of Baroda. [Picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]

Though he started his career as a draughtsman with the Secretariat Office in Indore, he soon switched over to photography when there were rumours that draughtsmen would soon be replaced by photographers. In 1874, he opened his own photography studio at Indore. His mesmerizing clicks soon caught the eye of Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar II of Indore and Maharaja Anand Rao Puar III of Dhar. In no time, he bagged prestigious assignments. He was photographer to many Viceroys before being appointed as Queen Victoria’s photographer in 1887. He worked for the Nizam, his biggest patron, from 1885 till his death in 1905.

Portrait of a lady, 1893. [Picture courtesy: Hoarding at NGMA]

Portrait of a lady, 1893. [Picture courtesy: Hoarding at the NGMA]


Around the same time, he opened his studio Deen Dayal & Sons in Secunderabad. He ran the studio with a staff of 50. In 1890, he opened a studio only for women which ran under the name Zenana Studio. The idea of having such a studio was to protect native ladies from the “gaze of the profane and the stern”.

Bansi Raja Girdhari Prasad, Commander of Nizam's irregular forces. [Picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Bansi Raja Girdhari Prasad, Commander of Nizam’s irregular forces. [Picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]


Working with the Nizam was easily Deen Dayal’s most creative period. In 1894, his patron conferred on him the title ‘Raja’. The Nizam paid a handsome tribute to Deen Dayal with a Urdu couplet which translated to:

“In the art of picture making, skill surpassing all,
A master of masters is Lala Deen Dayal”

Photo of a couple, 1880 [picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Photo of a couple, 1880 [picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]

In the same year, Raja Deen Dayal decided to close his Indore studio and opened one in Bombay (now Mumbai). The studio, which ran under the name Raja Deen Dayal and Sons: Art Photographic Salon was at 132, Hornby Road in the city’s Fort Area. It had such distinguished clients like Sir Jamshedji Nusserwanji Tata and was run by his son Gyan Chand.
Besides his innate photographic talent, Raja Deen Dayal had excellent diplomatic and communication skills. This explains his large clientele that was an equal mix of Europeans and Indians. Working for the Viceroys and the Queen led to Deen Dayal travelling intensively across the country.

Deen Dayal used the concept of multiple exposures on a single glass plate with finesse. [Picture courtesy:  Hoarding at  NGMA]

Deen Dayal used the concept of multiple exposures on a single glass plate with finesse. [Picture courtesy: Hoarding at the NGMA]

Portrait of Mrs. Newport Tinley, 1896. [Picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Portrait of Mrs. Newport Tinley, 1896. [Picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]

Among his eye-catching works are those created with multiple exposures on a single glass plate. His subjects took great pain to dress up as is evident in the portraits of the royals and those of Mrs. Newport Tinley and Mrs. Smalley. Deen Dayal managed to get excellent poses from all his subjects. Also noticeable is the similarity in the poses of all his subjects.

A Marathi lady [Picture courtesy: hoarding at NGMA]

A Marathi lady [Picture courtesy: hoarding at the NGMA]

Women playing a board game (Picture courtesy: NGMA)

Women playing a board game [Picture courtesy: NGMA]

Photos of the hoi polloi will give you an idea of life in the late 19th century. Among these, a photo of women playing a board game and that of a mendicant stand out.

Taj Mahal from a different perspective [Picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Taj Mahal from a different perspective [Picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]


He photographed monuments from different perspectives. There is an 1885 picture of the Taj Mahal captured along with other monuments in the vicinity.

Also eye-catching is an 1890 street view of Hyderabad with the Charminar in the background where the viewer’s eyes are drawn across the entire expanse of the street to the majestic monument. You will find it difficult to take your eyes off the magnificent entrance of the Faluknama Palace and the Vinay Vilas Mahal at Alwar.

There is an 1885 photo of the Bulund Darwaza at Fatehpur Sikhri with the huts and mud structure in the foreground. Their presence in the frame accentuates the beauty of the monument.
Other awesome photographs are those of the Madras High Court (1897) and Kolkata Street View (1899). Some monuments have men posing beside them to provide a comparative scale.

Interior of Chowmahal Palace, 1898. [Picture courtesy: www.deendayal.com (with permission from www.deendayal.com)]

Interior of Chowmahal Palace, 1898. [Picture courtesy: http://www.deendayal.com (with permission from http://www.deendayal.com)]


The many photographs of palace interiors are particularly exquisite.

Among the royals, a very impressive photograph is that of the young Sahibzadi Nizam-un-nisa Begum in regal finery flaunting a seven-string Hyderabadi pearl necklace. The princess who was one of the daughters of the sixth Nizam unfortunately died very young.

Raja Deen Dayal shut his Bombay Studio in 1904, a year before his death. His Secunderabad continued to be run by his son and later grandson.

A hoarding at the NGMA with a picture of the Nizam's Elephant Carriage, 1903.

A hoarding at the NGMA with a picture of the Nizam’s Elephant Carriage, 1903.

This is one exhibition you ought not to miss!

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