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Raja Deen Dayal, India’s ‘bold warrior of photography’

There are dozens of studios still thriving in Hyderabad, all of them claiming for themselves the legacy of Raja Deen Dayal, who first brought a 'native' touch to photography in India

Raja Ravi Varma (right) arrived at the ‘nizam’ of Hyderabad’s court at the invitation of photographer Raja Deen Dayal. Photo: Wikimedia and Alamy
Raja Ravi Varma (right) arrived at the ‘nizam’ of Hyderabad’s court at the invitation of photographer Raja Deen Dayal. Photo: Wikimedia and Alamy

In 1902, when the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma arrived in Hyderabad, he did not quite visualize himself queuing like a supplicant in a private house, hoping to win the attention of the reigning nizam. He had come at the invitation of another illustrious figure of his day, the photographer Raja Deen Dayal, expecting the standard of reception he had grown accustomed to—state carriages, palatial apartments, and a demonstrative overload of honour.

The nizam, however, had other preoccupations, and not only did he ignore Varma, when the artist’s works were eventually shown, he refused to buy them; a portrait was sold on the market months later for a few hundred rupees, at a time when Varma commanded several thousand apiece.

The episode proved an embarrassment to our glamorous gentleman-artist, and, even before he left Hyderabad, he had broken with Deen Dayal, who, he complained, had not made enough of an effort to help his cause. As his brother diarized, “Deen Dayal and his son…seem to be jealous of us. They feared they won’t get any more orders."

Raja Deen Dayal—whose death anniversary fell on 5 July—was in some ways a rival to Ravi Varma. As Rupika Chawla writes, this Jain from Sardhana “brought to photography what Ravi Varma brought to paintings—the pomp and grandeur of kings… with the documentation of places and events." Both had formidable, comparable reputations, even though they worked with different mediums.

But while there might have been some competitiveness on account of a common clientele, it was unlikely Deen Dayal had any reason to sabotage Varma’s efforts in Hyderabad. He was secure in his position, had acquired much wealth and fame, and worked with fascinating new technology that had captured the imagination not only of India’s princely set but also the middle classes. More likely, then, as Chawla notes, it was Varma and his brother who felt somewhat insecure, added to which was bewilderment that their reputation had failed to make the slightest dent in India’s proudest royal court.

Interestingly, while the painter came from aristocratic privilege, Deen Dayal was of humbler origins. He was born in 1844, and became a student of engineering. At 22—when Ravi Varma already had a royal patron—Deen Dayal was a public works department employee in Indore. It was in 1874 that he ventured into photography “as an amateur", supported by the local British resident. He travelled with him, “photographing views, native chiefs, etc, etc", forming a bond that was maintained by subsequent colonial agents as well—in 1876, he was allowed to turn his lens on the Prince of Wales, and, in 1887, Deen Dayal was granted a royal warrant, becoming “Photographer to Her Majesty the Queen".

Like Ravi Varma, his ascent too was aided by friends in high places, talent, ambition, and perseverance justifying such support. “Having found that the public greatly appreciated my views (i.e. photographs)," he wrote, then, “…I took a furlough for two years in order to complete my series." It helped, of course, that the ruler of Indore had granted him landed estates—with an assured income, Deen Dayal could focus on his craft.

The two years he spent travelling, photographing grand buildings and grand personages with equal vigour, convinced Deen Dayal that he could become a full-time lensman. It launched him on a career that saw the man and his studios produce an estimated 30,000 photographs, earning him such titles as “Bold Warrior of Photography" from the nizam (which also required him, formally, to keep a cavalry of 2000). It was, in fact, in 1885 that he first came to Hyderabad, a letter of introduction from the British viceroy in his hands. The nizam was enthusiastic, and, before long, Deen Dayal established himself in the cantonment in Secunderabad. It was risky business, for there were several European photographers active there already, but his ability to think outside the box and excel at what he did meant that soon Deen Dayal’s became a fashionable enterprise, employing nearly 50 men (and a woman), and offering visitors a fascinating guide on how to pose called Hints to Sitters.

So, for, instance we have this wisdom on toddlers and their unstately conduct before the camera: “Babies and children," we learn, “are subjects that require patience, care and attention to obtain a photograph.... Although (they) often occasion much trouble…we make no extra charge." This was, of course, not generosity born of a sense of commitment to the photography of babies—Deen Dayal’s business was flourishing, and the branch in Bombay was described in 1896 by The Times Of India as “the most splendidly equipped photographic salon in the East". As Clark Worswick writes, “By the end of the nineteenth century Governors, princes, touring statesmen, all flocked to his Bombay studio to be ‘done’."

It was much the same with Ravi Varma, whose portraits too were a necessary acquisition for the glamorous—but, like the artist, whose lithographs business quickly folded, by the end of his life Deen Dayal too faced trouble sustaining his empire of black and white pictures.

Deen Dayal died in 1905, a year before the artist with whom he had fallen out. His son, Gyan Chand, tried to keep the flame burning, but rising competition and the erosion of royal warmth made matters difficult. When the latter died, thousands of glass-plate negatives were sold as “scrapped, used glass in the local market" in Hyderabad, and it seemed that doom had descended on the house of Deen Dayal & Sons. But despite the unhappy end to their tale, Deen Dayal had made his mark—today there are dozens of studios still thriving in Hyderabad, all of them claiming for themselves the legacy of the old man from Sardhana who first brought a “native" touch to photography in India.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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