We explore the world of Lala Deen Dayal, an early Indian photographer whose work features in a new London show
Days of the Victorian Raj, as seen through the eyes of India’s ‘prince of photographers’
Long before the era of mass tourism and daily flights from Mumbai and Delhi, photographic evidence suggests that visitors travelled in more modest numbers to the ancient cave complex of Ellora in western India.
One vintage print from 1889 features five small figures dressed in white in the shadows of the Indra Sabha Cave, one of dozens of Jain, Hindu and Buddhist temples cut into the rock. Two of the men sit cross-legged outside the temple entrance. They appear to be looking back towards the curious sight of a photographer at work.
More remarkable still is the man behind the camera of this 1889 temple shot: an Indian of relatively lowly birth, an engineer by trade and a rare creature among the fabulously wealthy Indian hobbyists and travelling British colonials who dominated the early photographic trade in India.
More than 125 years later, this photograph features at a London exhibition of early Indian portraits to mark the 70th anniversary since Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan.
The image, by Lala Deen Dayal, is the only one on display to be definitively attributed to an Indian photographer, and provides a single example of the output of the era’s most famous and prolific native exponent.
The photograph – only identified as one of Dayal’s earlier this year – was typical of his work, in that it features humans and animals in pictures of great Indian temples. Their insignificance in the frame gives a sense of grand scale of the architecture that surrounds them.
Unlike the work of western photographers who travelled to India and brought back portraits of Maharajas, snake charmers and musicians, Dayal’s work provides the native perspective of 19th century life in India and a broader historical context to the British colonial rule.
“That’s why his pictures are so celebrated,” says Melanie Hough, curator of the 100-million photograph Getty Images Hulton Archive, from which the exhibition is drawn. “He was taking pictures of the country he knew and loved.”
Born in 1844 to a jeweller’s family in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, Dayal trained as a draftsman at engineering college. He went into public service, soon changing direction to set up his own studio and dedicate 18-hour days and the rest of his life to his passion for photography.
The process of taking a picture was labour-intensive, laborious and complex in the early decades of photography in India. One well-known exponent, Samuel Bourne, took an entourage of 30 people to carry his equipment and a three-metre-high developing tent for a photo shoot in the Himalayas.
Allying his photographic talent with sharp business acumen, Dayal – dubbed the “prince of photographers” – nurtured relations with both senior figures within the British Raj, the colonial rulers of India for nine decades, and local princes, in order to grow a network of studios.
He opened one close to India’s biggest military establishment, providing a constant flow of customers for portraits. He brought in further work by getting around strict social codes on women being viewed outside the home by setting up separate studios run by female photographers operating to his instruction.
His patrons included Queen Victoria, self-appointed Empress of India, who appointed him an official photographer, and the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, known for his lavish lifestyle and love of clothes and cars.
The photograph featured in the Getty gallery was part of a collection detailing events within the dominions of the Nizam. They include architectural jewels and life within the luxurious court, but also the devastation of droughts and floods.
The breadth and quality of Dayal’s work prompted The Hindu newspaper in 1894 to suggest that he was the only native who obtained a “European reputation” in his line of business, “having been thanked by the Czar and Kaiser alike of Russia and Austria, for the faultless finish of his work”.
“He had a way of relaxing his sitters and he was impeccably well-mannered,” says Ms Hough. “In the first decades of photography, he had that knock of putting people at their ease.
“Through his social standing and by being a very, very good photographer, he managed to traverse the two worlds [Indian rulers and their imperial overlords].”
Hough identified the unattributed photograph within the archive as one of Dayal’s after spotting the image in an auction house catalogue.
Indian Treasures, the exhibition that marks 70 years of Indian independence and features the work of Dayal and better-known colonial-era photographers, runs until October 7 at the Getty Images Gallery, London (www.gettyimagesgallery.com)