The Photos of Raja Deen Dayal
In 2016, the museum acquired 37 photographs by Raja Deen Dayal (1844–1905), hailed as the first great Indian photographer. These images, which show the British ruling elite in India and two boy maharajas and their nobles, had all once been part of a single photo album. Popular from the 1850s until the spread of digital photography in the 1990s, photo albums are precious mementos of a time or place. They served as status symbols and objects that defined one’s identity for future generations.
The album in question had been ordered from the photographer’s studio around 1888, probably by a male British official serving in or visiting India in late 1887 or 1888. This exhibition marks the United States debut of these rare, early photographs by Deen Dayal. On display alongside them are historical Indian paintings and luxurious textiles, clothing, and jewelry from the museum’s collection that help bring the photographs to life.
The client would have chosen which images he wanted in the volume, and he seems to have greatly favored portraits. Captions elegantly handwritten in English on the mounts identify the subjects. Most of the prints came from Deen Dayal’s stock images—an archive of depictions of meaningful sites, important occasions, and significant people that was essential to running a profitable studio. Nonetheless, it is likely that the purchaser of the album met many of the British individuals he selected—perhaps had tea or dinner at their homes—and spent time at a number of the locales depicted. If the visitor was on official business, he may even have been received at the courts of these maharajas. After all, this album was a souvenir of his time in India, something to jog his own memory in the future and to pass down the story of his glorious adventure in India to later generations.
How personal were this man’s connections with the sitters? A young woman identified as Miss Lyall appears in three different photographs and a Mrs. Lyall (most likely a sister-in-law but possibly a mother) in two of them. Was the album commissioned by someone courting Miss Lyall, perhaps even her future husband? We may never know, even though we can track the biographies of many of the British sitters and of the two 10-year-old maharajas, both of whom remained on the throne for almost 40 years.
What do these images, taken 135 years ago by an Indian whose business relied heavily on a British clientele, suggest about the British colonists and the Indian people over whom they ruled? Deen Dayal portrayed how the British brought England with them to India and, in a number of pictures, the Indian servants who supported that colonial lifestyle. These servants are never identified or even referred to in the captions. We see them posing alongside the British horses and dogs they walk, feed, and groom; hovering in the background at a picnic ready to offer more food; and standing at attention behind British carriages.
Visually striking, seductively charming, and providing much food for thought, Deen Dayal’s photographs and the related Indian art objects offer new insights into the early career of India’s most important historic photographer and into British and Indian life in late 19th-century India.