The Raja of Photography

The Raja of Photography

A new gallery in Delhi pans on the lives of the 19th century elite in India, as captured by their favourite lensman — Raja Deen Dayal.

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The gallery showcases Deen Dayal’s studio with its ornate curtains.

IN a room at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), 20 stunning images of luxury and grandeur evoke the 19th century. There are the nawabs, bejewelled maharajas and maharanis flanked by attentive courtiers and even the Burra sahibs of the empire. Against the backdrop of palaces and havelis, some of the men pose with their kill, after what may have been a satisfying hunting session.

These visuals form a part of IGNCA’s newest gallery — a permanent one — dedicated to the life and works of Raja Deen Dayal, the legendary 19th-century photographer, who set up studios in Hyderabad and Bombay. In the adjoining room, studio furniture and equipment transport one to Deen Dayal’s workplace. The centrepiece is a vintage Belgian life-sized mirror — an original from his personal collection — which was used by many a royalty for a final touch-up before posing for photographs.

The display is part of the rare collection that IGNCA had acquired from private collectors almost three decades ago at a huge price, but was lying unused in its repository since then. Archivist Himani Pande, who has put together the display, says Deen Dayal’s contribution to the field of Indian photography is remarkable. “His portraits speak a lot about the lifestyle, fashion, ornaments and the furniture of those times. The discrimination in the society and the status of women shows in group photos (in their posture and way of standing). In fact, it’s as if the legendary lensman has documented the visual history of his times for posterity,” she says.

Deen Dayal was born in 1844 to a Jain family of jewellers in Sardhana, near Meerut. He completed a civil engineering course in Roorkee and was appointed in the public works department at Indore. He had a keen interest in photography and would capture monuments using the glass-plate technology, which had just arrived in India then. In 1874, he took up photography as a profession. It is said that Deen Dayal was so skilled with the use of light, camera angles and equipment, that he attracted a wide spectrum of wealthy clients. Both India royals and the British ruling elite offered him commissioned projects.


Consequently, his exhibits were acclaimed at international exhibitions. He set up flourishing studios in Secunderabad and Indore. He had a zanana studio (for women) in Hyderabad and owned the largest workshop-studio in Bombay. His Bombay studio was ranked as “the most splendidly equipped photographic salon in the East”.

In 1884, he was appointed court photographer to the sixth Nizam Mir Mahboob Ali Khan in Hyderabad. The Nizam even wrote a couplet dedicated to Deen Dayal, which has been pasted on a wall of the gallery besides the Nizam’s portrait captured by Deen Dayal: 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).

Deen Dayal was later appointed as the official photographer to Queen Victoria, and in 1900, he received a similar appointment to King Edward VII. Deen Dayal continued to come up with glossy, bright shots to match the status of his patrons. Wittingly or unwittingly, those works have now become an archive of India’s early photographic history.

Besides recreating the era through Deen Dayal’s works, IGNCA showcases his studio, with ornate curtains, painted backdrop, furniture juxtaposed with props of a flower vase, books and a footrest pillow. The pieces on display here are antique and rare, and were an integral part of the photographer’s studio and his work. Deen Dayal’s vintage camera, of course, takes centre stage, so do the glass-plate negatives.

Historian Sunil Khilnani, in his recent book Incarnations, says of Deen Dayal: Without him we wouldn’t understand so powerfully the moment when India was the world’s exotic, wondrous playground for the wealthy — before the modern world got in the way.

Deen Dayal passed away on July 5, 1905. His son, Gyan Chand, continued his work in Hyderabad studio and subsequently, Gyan Chand’s three sons took over. But none could match the range and stature of Deen Dayal, nor could they match his shrewd business acumen.

The gallery is in the upper basement level of the IGNCA building, Janpath, open from Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm.