Over a month ago I was fortunate enough to attend a book launch at the Royal Ontario Museum. The title of the evening: “Raja Deen Dayal: Revealed.” The book: Raja Deen Dayal: Artist Photographer in 19th Century India by Dr. Deepali Dewan and Dr. Deborah Hutton.
As you might imagine, I had a field day. After a few weeks of looking at primary documents for someone else’s research, it was nice to get some analysis and theory in. Especially when it involved a combination of some of my favourite things: colonial India, technology, and photography!
First up was Rahaab Allana, Curator of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi, and Editor-in-Chief of PIX. His talk was a fascinating marriage of colonial and post-, of art and technology, and of domination and contestation – bordering on poetic, as one audience member later commented. He showed how the colonial origins of photography in India have not been brushed aside, but are actively engaged with by modern artists, who contend with that heritage through the very medium which acted as an imperial tool.
And yet, as Dewan and Hutton’s combined presentation demonstrated, that, too, was challenged from early on. Lala, later Raja, Deen Dayal came to photography from within the colonial system. He was trained as a surveyor, as an employee of the Raj, and it was through this work that he was introduced, quite by accident to photography. He quickly developed a knack for it, and soon enough he was being called upon by British elites, not to mention the Viceroy himself, to take group photographs and portraits. He was even called up to hill stations (yup, you read right!) to capture scenes and people up in the heights of Simla and Darjeeling.
As the authors continued their talk, accompanied by the regular rattling of the subway below, we learned of how Deen Dayal, well established in elite Raj society, made his way to Hyderabad during his tour of India, taking scenic tourist shots that he could sell as souvenirs to travelers and letter-writers alike. These images were, and remain, beautiful – striking in their details of fine architectural geometry, and graceful in the play of light and shadow which captured by Deen Dayal’s shutter. Yet what he was doing was taking an instrument of the colonial gaze, used initially to survey and document a land so as to know and control it better, and appropriating it. He was feeding his audience with a view proffered up by their own imperial technology, taken by colonized hands. He was implicated, and ‘imbricated’ – to use Dewan’s phrase – within the colonial system, yet he was also manipulating it for his own ends.
Those ends turned out to be highly successful. Deen Dayal’s studio in Secundarabad (now part of modern Hyderabad [I think?]) still exists today, and holds an enormous archive of every photograph ever taken by the studio. It’s one of the stops on my trip this summer, and I can’t wait to go!
If you happen to be in Toronto this summer, check out the exhibition at the ROM, “Between Princely India and the British Raj: The Photography of Raja Deen Dayal,” (link below) which accompanies the book.