A study of nineteenth century photographs of India, is incomplete without the prolific and popular Raja Deen Dayal’s work. In a moment that is heavily dominated by British and other European photographers, Raja Deen Dayal as a sole Indian who photographed extensively and was immensely sought after, has been hailed as a voice of native expression, a source of national pride and an ‘Indian’ artist comparable to the other greats of the time such as Bourne, Hoffman or Firth.
Lala Deen Dayal was court photographer to Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, who conferred upon him the title Musawwir Jung Raja Bahadur or the Bold Warrior of Photography. Even prior to that, he had been issued a Royal Warrant of appointment as photographer to her Majesty, the Queen Victoria, which at the time was an extremely coveted position to have held. Deen Dayal’s extensive list of achievements are rather inspiring; having entered the government service as a head estimator and draughtsman (a fact that one can read as having later influenced his photographic work) in Indore, Dayal quickly moved up the ladder, taking opportunities offered to him to utilise his skills with photography, something he had recently taken up. His photographic commissions enabled him to set up studios and he had a flourishing business running a network of them in Indore, Bombay, Hyderabad and Secunderabad by the 1870s. At a time when most other functional, and favoured, studios were run by Europeans, Lala Deen Dayal managed not only to grab a toehold in the field, but an entire piece of the pie.
While his significance to an understanding of photography in the nineteenth century in India is unarguable, it is important to realise that the valorisation of Dayal as the ‘native chronicler’ – a distinctive voice in a sea of European vision, is inherently problematic as Zahid Chaudhary reasons. Whatever small details a comparative analysis might turn up – such as the fact that Dayal’s photographs are usually slightly more populated – their reading as a colonized subject’s expression would be a reflection of our desires to tease out certain kinds of narratives in a postcolonial moment.
Merely looking at form, Dayal’s images correspond to the then established colonial picturesque aesthetic, just as masterfully rendered. It is this that enforces Chaudhary’s argument for using Adorno’s mimetic theory as a framework for reading Dayal’s work. Chaudhary argues that rather than a blind emulation of Victorian form, Dayal’s photographs need to be comprehended as ‘nestling against’ the dominant aesthetic of the photographic medium at a particular historical moment in time and space. The assimilation, and by degree appropriation, of this aesthetic by the colonised native is inevitable, even if uneven as Chaudhary points out. The familiarity of form that translated essentially foreign landscapes for viewers at home in the case of European photographers, that also manifest in Dayal’s work, certainly made him popular with European patrons. Inversely within an Indian context, Dayal’s photographs rendered the familiar in a foreign idiom – one that was both legible and held currency within circulating aesthetic forms of the time.
Though Deen Dayal was influenced by local aesthetic traditions, it is his aspiration to the picturesque – successfully achieved – that places him staunchly within the colonial structures of power. In repeatedly evoking a mode of seeing promoted by the British, that denoted a certain notion of how the coloniser saw (and conquered) land, people and heritage, Dayal’s works politically enframe India, her monuments and people within the same landscape of colonial will and gaze, and produces a cross section of the ways in which politics, economics and aesthetics intersect.
The photographs reproduced below, from an album that was made for the Nizam of Hyderabad and that focused on the Nizam’s dominions – Hyderabad and its surrounding areas, is a perfect illustrator of this intersection. As a commissioned work with clear political motives that run counter to the grand colonial narrative, that the people of India were incapable of sustaining any form of dependable governance, seeking instead to create an image of a peaceful, historically rich and modern state run by the Nizam. It is interesting to note however that it uses the colonial aesthetic of the picturesque, its idiom of scale and monumentality and its tropes of modernity and technology (such as the railways) to achieve the same.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-century India, by Zahid Chaudhary