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Event Review - Vintage Photography Exhibition of Raja Deen Dayal

The stunning Manikyavelu Mansion

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness…

These verses by John Keats aptly capture the essence of this exhibition. Long after these photographs were taken, these sepia toned images have the power to intrigue and amaze us with their beauty of composition. When I came to know about this event, my curiosity was piqued as it promised an insight into a bygone era. A quick google search gave me a brief history of the man himself but I resisted looking at any of his photographs to have a blank canvas of sorts to absorb all his brilliance, ready to get my socks knocked off!

And socks were knocked off when I saw the venue itself! The stunning Manikyavelu Mansion (which was once owned by the Mysore royal family followed by Raja Manikayavalu Mudaliar, a mine owner) which houses the National Gallery of Modern Art was a sight to behold. The pristine white edifice amidst lush green foliage with its imposing façade creating a stunning reflection in a water body was mesmerizing. Expecting a staid government building, I was already excited. The exhibition was arranged in three sections - places, people, and events; weaving an engaging narrative with beautiful worded commentary describing each photograph pointing to the minute nuances and techniques used.

The section on places including forts, palaces, temples and other monument across India was a lesson on how to frame and compose photographs. The beautifully composed photographs highlight the scale and the grandeur of the monument while those of the interiors give us a glimpse of the spectacular halls decked with ornate ceilings, glistening chandeliers and mirrors, exuberant curtains and drapery, luxurious carpets and plenteous colonial furniture. The section on people consisted of a slew of portraits of royalty as well as dignitaries, noblemen, and common people giving us an insight into their lives and customs as well as a peek of their fine grand costumes complete with elaborate accessories and interesting props and backdrops. The events covered range from regal tours, hunting expeditions, military maneuvers and social affairs. The commentary included interesting trivia about his business acumen and how the photographs were marketed and sold and the accolades he received for his brilliant work from all quarters.

Raja Deen Dayal has been described as a picturesque hunter with a keen vision with which he brought out amazing depth and details in each of his image. We can learn a lot from his style and here is a quick compilation (spoiler alert, skip this section in case you are planning on visiting the exhibition):
  1. His trademark style was to leave a vast foreground for monuments which magnified the monuments. He also cleverly juxtaposed the monuments with foregrounds like a desolate landscape or spartan grounds which brought out the monument's grandeur like he did for the Bulund Darwaza in Fatehpur Sikri with a foreground of huts and mud structures, Bara Kaman in Bijapur with its barren pathway and the Jama Masjid in Delhi with a vast plain.
  2. He often used low angels so the buildings have a clear background of sky so that details of the monument were more pronounced like that of a photograph of Vinay Vikas Mahal in Alwar. He used the same technique for portraits also and kept the background clutter free.
  3. He created depth and infused the pictures with a three dimensional perspective by taking the viewer along a pathway or a wall to a structure at the far end of a frame like he did in a brilliant photograph of Charminar, Hyderabad or the Brihadeshwara temple in Thanjavur.
  4. He conveyed scale and grandness of a monument by using a human figure in the frame like that he did in the photograph of Cenotaph of Maharaja Sangram Singh where an assistant stands on one of the platforms of the structure to convey the scale.
  5. He captured photographs with “dual gaze”, his own as a photographer and the Nizam’s as a performer and onlooker of his own performance where he captured the vista of the city from the balcony of the Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad.
  6. His philosophy for portraits was that the sitter’s happiest expression must be captured.
  7. There is also an earliest instance of a candid photograph I have seen when he captured Nawab Ghalib Jung and friends at a demonstration of the new American treadle phonographs. Amongst a slew of carefully orchestrated photographs, this one stood out for capturing the people in the moment.
I know I have gone overboard with so much analysis and description but I can’t help it. These images have surprised and intrigued me. Surprised because I never knew of the existence of such a pioneer photographer who captured India in those times other than Samuel Bourne and intrigued for the peek into this grand bygone era…

Here is a brief history of Raja Deen Dayal if you are interested.
Raja Deen Dayal was a pioneer photographer in India and the first Indian to capture India in all its diversity and grandeur through this medium, from the majestic monuments to its virgin vistas to royal rendezvous.  Educated as a civil engineer, he started off as draughtsman when he was introduced to photography. His talent as a brilliant photographer earned him a lot of fame and he handled a lot of important commissions like photographing the visit of Prince of Wales and his entourage and was appointed by the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad as the "Court Photographer". 

Encouraged by the growing appreciation and consequent demand for his photographs, he set up studios in Indore, Secunderabad and Bombay which were very successful. We can gauge their status by this excerpt from the Times of India printed on 26th November, 1896.
“In the furnishings and decorations of the dressing rooms and indeed of the whole suit of rooms, the greatest taste has been bestowed , and it is scarcely too much to say that, the enterprising proprietors have succeeded in endowing Bombay with the most splendidly equipped photographic studio in the East.”
Mimicking the royalty; wealthy people and commoners alike, flocked to these studios to get portraits done in elaborate costumes. The studios seemed to have handy hints to the sitters such as the colors which come out well in photographs to how to pose.

Raja Deen Dayal also traveled extensively and toured the country by rail and bullock-cart, taking along mounds of photographic paraphernalia from stacks of heavy glass-plates to bulky cameras to capture the views of India and native characters which were sold as single pieces as well as a collection of bounded album. His photographs were bought as memorabilia and gifts by the British and Indian Royalty and the era saw the display of photographs in décor similar to paintings. 

References - here and here

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