Past Lives

 Raja Deen Dayal’s History of India

When I first saw Raja Deen Dayal’s photographs, I was mesmerised. At an exhibition hosted by Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) in 2011, I found his 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 priceless treasures of his photography.

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Deen Dayal studied photography while finishing his engineering degree in Roorkee. A picture of Dayal by one of his assistants. 1898

Dayal is often quoted as the photographer of the rich and powerful – Indian royal families and the British aristocracy and administrators. However, it is his photographs of ordinary millions – 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 to 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.

He offers a historical visual memory of 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 royal balls and family albums help weave a wealth of imagery of colonial India.

Dayal’s image of Apollo Bunder (prelude to Gateway of India) presents a Japanese style pavillion that functioned as a key pier of embarkment and disembarkment for passengers. 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 stark image of the port with the natives and the sahibs (seen chilling near the ocean) in the same frame but poles apart.

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Apollo Bunder, before the Gateway of India was built. c.1890

Dayal’s box camera 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 sometime close to 1895. There are no women devotees here.

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Tulja Bhawani temple. c. 1895

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 dance artistes 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. Nor can one disengage from the woman decked up in anticipation of the next performance. The women seemed to carry their entire world in the small make-up and jewellery box. Dayal excels in recording the drama and the toil of dance girls.

 nautch girls

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The nautch girls (top, c.1890) and the fakir (above, 1898) from the Native Character series created by Deen Dayal’s studio. Prints of such pictures were sold for Rs 1-2

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 stunning and Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore became a willing patron for his art. Later he met Sir Henry Daly, the general who founded a college in Indore. Soon 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.

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Dayal’s early patron was Maharaja Anand Rao Puar III, seen here with his nephew and heir on the left and an attendant on the right

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 (Bold Warrior of Photography) on him.

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. 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”.

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Deen Dayal’s studio carried a message : “Although babies and children often occasion much trouble and require a large number of plates, we make no extra charge.” Dayal displayed remarkable patience for his restless young customers, like this young Muslim girl

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This now iconic portrait of the pioneer industralist Jamshetji Tata was taken by Dayal in his Mumbai studio in 1898

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 were: “Come when you have no other engagement immediately following, so as not to feel flurried.”

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In Dayal’s studio you could try out different costumes, jewellery and pose with a variety of props. This woman must have been satisfied with the final images she received from the photographer. c.1890

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

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Dayal in his work clothes. He mostly wore the traditional angarkha and a turban during shoots. The choga was also a regular drape. To hide his leucoderma patches, he would apply wax or red dye on the negatives. This picture was taken probably in 1900, a couple of years before his death

Yet, Dayal set the gold standards for photography. The aesthetic brilliance and refinement of his works is unmatched 100 years later.  He not only displayed the craft to create blemish-less images but also the passion to give his best to all who came in front of his lense –  raja or runk (king or pauper).

All photographs are courtesy IGNCA. Some facts for the article have been sourced from the catalogue Raja Deen Dayal: The Studio Archives from the IGNCA Collection and an article by the author in Swagat magazine, April 2011 issue.


PICASSO, MARIE-THÉRÈSE WALTER & THE BLIND BULL

“You have an interesting face.  I would like to do a portrait of you.  I feel we are going to do great things together,” said Picasso to Marie-Thérèse Walter when he first spotted her in a metro in the year 1927.  Marie-Thérèse was just 17 when the 40-plus Picasso 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.

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Marie-Thérèse Walter had no idea who was Picasso when they  first met in 1927 in Paris. Picasso found this both charming and exciting. Wikicommons

Picasso’s granddaughter, art historian and curator Diana Widmaier-Picasso, said in an interview that Picasso seemed to be “waiting” for Marie-Thérèse to appear, and that she was “the love of his life”.

Picasso drew and painted Marie-Thérèse consistently. He once described painting as another form of keeping a diary. By 1932, his “diary” was full of Marie-Thérèse. She appeared to be the centre of his creative universe.

Marie-Thérèse bore him a daughter, Maya. Picasso supported Marie-Thérèse and their daughter for a long time. Picasso never married her though he continued to paint her even after their affair ended. Art historians claim that Picasso had all intentions to divorce his wife Olga and marry Marie-Thérèse. His lawyers suggested that he leave Marie-Thérèse until the divorce comes through. Picasso did not paint at all during this period of separation.

Although there are several masterpieces by Picasso featuring Marie-Thérèse, it is the Vollard Suite (a collection of 100 etchings Picasso did in the 1930s)  that displays not only his passion for this classical beauty but also his transformative journey as an artist.

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Minotaur with a Goblet in His Hand and a Young Woman

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. The most touching  among the etchings are those where she appears along with a Minotaur (a man with a face of a bull).

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Many of the etchings portray Marie-Thérèse as an innocent beauty controlled by Picasso, who appears like a Minotaur

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.

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Blind Minotaur Guided by a Little Girl with Flowers. Picasso often painted Marie-Thérèse as a child symbolising innocence and hope

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 often painted her as a child who was not always innocent. Some of the etchings in the Vollard Suite appear to even portray sexual violence.

Marie-Thérèse committed suicide four years after Picasso’s death.

All images of the Vollard Series are sourced from then Christie’s website.

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