The prince of photographers

Written by Sukalp Sharma | Sukalp Sharma | Updated: Oct 1 2012, 01:55am hrs
Ajab yeh karte hain tasvir mein kamaal kamaal, ustaadon ke hain ustaad Raja Deen Dayal. (In the art of photography, surpassing all, the master of masters is Raja Deen Dayal). These words, uttered more than a century ago by the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Khan, say plenty about the pioneer of photography in India. The compliment sounds superfluous, extravagant, and almost-reverential, much like the status Indias many royalties accorded themselves with during the time. But such was the photographic brilliance of Raja Deen Dayal that he commanded these accolades.

Cut to the present day. The world has changed, rather transformed. Indias face has changed dramatically, and photography as a science and an art has breached barriers that probably were unthinkable 100 years ago. But heres the thing about photography: like history, it loves time warps. And somewhere, we as a nation are in true and absolute love with our own history, a condition that seems quite normal considering we really do have the kind of history that we have.

In such a context, the work of a pioneer of the visual medium, such as Raja Deen Dayal, assumes significant importance. No wonder then that the inaugural edition of the United Art Fair (UAF)brainchild of Annurag Sharma of art shipping firm United Art Logisticsthe capitals second art fair after the much talked about India Art Fair, has on display around 40 works of the master photographer in a special section, which is also being pitched as the USP of the three-day fair. The collection has been brought in from the Raja Deen Dayal Estate in Hyderabad and is presented by Priya Singhal, who heads the estate and is a descendent of Deen Dayal. His vignettes of late 19th century and early 20th century India, particularly his extensive work on the monuments of India and on British and princely India, stand out as some of the most memorable photographs of that era. He was showered with titles and honours, hobnobbed with the gentry, which included the Indian royals and the British elite.

According to the Raja Deendayal Foundation website, after completing his technical education from Thomason Civil Engineering College in Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee), Deen Dayal joined as head estimator and draftsmen in the public works department at Indore. It was there that the ruler of Indore, Maharaja Tukoji II, encouraged him to set up his studio. Deen Dayals life had now taken a turn that would take him places, quite literally. In 1896, he started the largest photography studio in Bombay, which became a favourite with Indians as well as the British. It was here that the Nizam of Hyderabad interacted with Deen Dayal, inviting him to Hyderabad where he set up a studio in Secunderabad. He became the court photographer of the Nizam and by then, he had already been honoured (in 1885) by Lord Dufferin and appointed official photographer to the Viceroy. This was followed by the honour of being appointed as Photographer to Her Majesty and Queen by Queen Victoria in 1887.

His works being exhibited at the UAF include some spectacular shots of iconic buildings of that era, buildings that are probably even more iconic now and evoke history in all its might and gloryCalcuttas Writers Building, the Water Palace at Deeg, the Charminar in Hyderabad, interiors of the grandiose and opulent Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, and more. Personalities, too, make their presence feltthe young Fateh Singh Rao Gaekwad (Prince of Baroda), Lord and Lady Curzon posing with the body of a tiger after a day of game hunting, Sir Raghubir Singh (Maharaja of Bundi), and, of course, Mahboob Ali Khan (the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad) at the Royal Durbar in Delhi.

Raja Deen Dayal, however, has a much larger and vivid body of work running into thousands of glass plate negatives, most of which are at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi, with a substantial number at the Deen Dayal Estate. He followed a generation for which photography was merely an instrument of pictorial record-keeping, particularly of archaeological sites. However, Deen Dayals frames have that quintessential aesthetic value that separates art from just-pictures. For all the advancement in technology and photography, his photographs even in todays day and age stand out.

His photography had the acumen that got him this kind of recognition. In spite of using primitive and bulky equipment, his pictures stand out with a very fine balance of light and shadow which till date remains the basis of the quality of a monochromatic picture in particular. His photography was very exotic in many ways and thats what people even in those times craved for. He had developed a trademark style of his own, which was followed by generations of photographers, says Priya Singhal.

She seems to be spot on there. The kind of touristy shots that are commonplace now, of say a Taj Mahal, were mastered and almost devised by Raja Deen Dayal some 125 years ago. Masters and pioneers may be considered beyond comparisons of better or worse, for they started it all. But even if one goes by the comparisons of Raja Deen Dayals work to that of his contemporaries, he most certainly would emerge as the prince of photographers.