Past Lives

Raja Deen Dayal’s History of India

When I first saw Raja Deen Dayal’s photographs at an exhibition hosted by Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) in 2011, I was mesmerised. Each frame was spectacular, the images beautiful and powerful at the same time.

IGNCA had bought the studio archives of Dayal from his family in 1989. The collection includes 2,857 glass plate negatives, certificates, cameras, lenses and studio props. One gallery at the IGNCA exclusively showcases the marvellous treasures of his photography.

Although Dayal is often quoted as the photographer of the rich and powerful – Indian royal families and the British aristocracy and administrators – it is his photographs of the ordinary millions, like the nautch girls, circus performers, tribals, street entertainers, fakirs, jugglers, acrobats, flood victims, famine survivors and relief workers, that make him a compulsive chronicler of 19th century India.

Several of his images can today be a valuable source for modern India historians or sociologists. Dayal’s eye captured large and diverse group of Indians, at fairs, in festivals and ceremonies, thus providing a glimpse of the culture, dress, lifestyle, religious beliefs and rituals of that time.

Thanks to Dayal, we have a historical visual memory of the sites like the Gateway of India, Gulbarga Fort, Jama Masjid, Udaipur Lake Palace, Orchcha Palace, Khajuraho temples and the Writers Building of Kolkata. The numerous images of military parades, camps, royal hunts, Durbars, ancient temples, beauty pageants and balls, family albums, all help weave a wealth of imagery of colonial India.

Take Dayal’s image of Apollo Bunder (prelude to Gateway of India) presenting a Japanese style pavillion that functioned as a key pier of embarkment and disembarkment for passengers and goods. The photograph, part of the IGNCA archive, also depicts Britishers and other Europeans savouring the beauty of the ocean as members of the Bombay Yacht Club.  Dayal presents a start image of the port with the natives and the sahibs (seen chilling near the ocean) in the same frame but poles apart.

Dayal’s pictures effortlessly captured the social dynamics of that period.  His image of Tulja Bhavani’s shrine (Maharashtra) is a stunning composition. He probably took this shot from the rooftop of the outer walls of the temple. The rich and poor pilgrims blend within the complex that is dotted by chariots in shape of animals. The picture was taken in 1895. There are no women devotees here.


His artistry is again apparent in his 1890 picture of the dance performers. Prints of this picture were sold for Rs 1-2 as part of ‘Native character’ series produced by his studio. The women are seen getting ready in the open. No green rooms, no privacy in 19th century India for women performers. One cannot take one’s eyes away from the young girl admiring herself in the mirror. Or the woman decked up in anticipation of the next performance. And the real beauty is the make-up and jewellery box.

 Explosive talent

Lala Deen Dayal was born in 1844 in Sardana (Meerut) to a family of jewellers. While studying engineering in Roorkee, he took up photography as a vocational course. It soon became his supreme passion. While working as a draughtsman with the princely state of Indore, Dayal constantly took photographs. His images were so stunning that he found Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore a willing patron for his art. And once he met Sir Henry Daly, the general who founded a college in Indore, Dayal found himself clicking the most powerful and influential Britishers that included the Viceroy of India (Lord Northbrook) and Prince of Wales.


Queen Victoria honoured him with a Royal Warrant in 1897. Later, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad (Mir Mahboob Ali Khan made him his official photographer where his camera recorded the splendour of the Nizam’s palace life in great detail. In 1892, the Nizam conferred the title of Musawwir Jung Raja Bahadur or the Bold Warrior of Photography on him.

Art historians agree that Dayal’s life is like a textbook to study the growth and progress of photography in India.


Inside the most ‘photographic salon of the East’

Imagine going to the Raja Deen Dayal and Sons: Art Photographic Salon at Hornby Road in Mumbai for a portrait shot. You would get both – a full length profile and a close up. There would be several backdrops to choose from. You could perch on a footstool and pose in front of a box camera.

For a more laid back shot, there was a sofa. Most of Dayal’s clients preferred standing. There were special chairs and stools for children. Curtains with valances, side tables, carpets and flower vases would add to the décor. Dressing rooms were tastefully done and you could choose between urban or rural attires. In fact, the Times of India in its 26 November 1896 edition mentions that the “…proprietors (Dayal and sons) have succeeded in endowing Bombay with the most splendidly equipped photographic salon of the East”.


To give your photograph better print quality, Dayal would apply wax on the negatives. A red dye may also be used to hide the blemishes on your skin. The cameras had plates with different formats. And multiple frames were created on a single plate.

Besides Mumbai, Dayal built studios in Indore and Secunderabad. In the latter, he also opened a separate zenana section. The instructions to all clients was: “Come when you have no other engagement immediately following, so as not to feel flurried.”


Dayal was a photographer in an age when photography was a time-consuming and painstaking. Photo prints were made from glass plate negatives and each negative had to be carefully prepared using wet or dry collodion. Light control was difficult and the risk to exposure to dust and chemicals was high.

Yet, Dayal set the gold standards for photography. The aesthetic brilliance and refinement of his works is unmatched 100 years later.



Picasso, Marie-Thérèse Walter & the Blind Bull


Marie-Thérèse Walter was just 17 when a 40-plus Picasso spotted her in a metro and lured her to his studio. The relationship lasted for close to a decade, stirring Picasso to create some of the most erotic and sensitive works. Picasso drew and painted Marie-Thérèse consistently, often presenting her as a child who was not always innocent.


A look at the Vollard Suite (a collection of 100 etchings Picasso did in the 1930s)  displays his passion for this classical beauty. In some of the etchings she is a sleeping beauty, in some others an enchantress, in a few a child guide and in many a passive lover.


Minotaur with a Goblet in His Hand and a Young Woman.

The most touching  among the etchings are those where she appears along with a Minotaur (a man with a face of a bull).  In Minotaure caressant du Mufle la Main d’une Dormeuse (Bloch 201), the Minotaur is presented as a gentle lover, careful not to disturb the sleeping beauty but desperate to find out what she is dreaming about.

Close to 15 etchings in this collection trace the journey of the Minotaur, from a powerful predator to a helpless, blind beast.


Blind Minotaur Guided by a Little Girl with Flowers

Was Picasso the Minotaur? Some art historians believe so, especially when they study the series.Picasso may have sexually controlled the very young Marie-Thérèse, but may have lived in constant fear of losing her. He never married her though he continued to paint her even after their affair ended. Marie-Thérèse bore him a daughter, Maya.She committed suicide four years after Picasso’s death.



“This is the best painting of my life”


Young Amrita in the 1930s with some of her works. WIKICOMMONS

At age 16, Amrita Sher-Gil went to Paris to study art. It was 1929. Within three years  Amrita made close to 60 paintings and produced two outstanding canvases – Young Girls and Professional Model. Young Girls fetched her the Gold Medal from the Grand Salon, Paris’s top art event. Amrita’s sister Indira and friend Denise Proutaux were the models for this delightful painting.


Amrita Sher-gil (1913-1941), Indian, Young Girls, National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi

However, it is Professional Model that exhibited Amrita’s  superior talent. In Professional, Amrita portrayed a 40-year-old woman suffering from TB who struggled to survive in Paris. Amrita spent her Christmas eve painting this nude. In Amrita Sher-Gil: A Life, art historian Yashodhara Dalmia mentions what Amrita wrote to her cousin and later husband Victor Egan about this work.  “This painting is very good, (the best in my life).” Indeed it was an extraordinary piece of art from a girl who was barely 18.  “All the people whose judgement I trust told me that this painting is the best of my life and those who don’t have any knowledge about art say this is awful,” wrote Amrita to Victor. Both the works are now with the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

professional model

Professional Model, National Gallery of Modern Art


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