India 1844 – 1905
Kalighat at Calcutta
Collection Title: Indian views
Place made: Kolkata, West Bengal, India
Materials & Technique: photographs, portfolios albumen prints, albumen silver photograph Support: cream card pages from disassembled album
Military exercises were regularly held in the nineteenth century as a way of gauging readiness for battle and as a display of power. One of these ‘camps of exercise’, as they were known, took place over a fortnight in January 1886 near Delhi—on a much larger scale than previously held. The manoeuvres culminated in an immense (at the time) march of 35 000 men from British and Indian units in front of Lord Dufferin, Viceroy of India, as well as senior officers from 12 countries, including the United States of America, Italy, Germany, Austria and Russia.
The camp of exercise was essentially propaganda on a grand scale, a show of empire strength and bravado with the added bonus of sending a message to Upper Burma, which was proving difficult to secure after it was annexed into the British Raj in November 1885 and presented to Queen Victoria as a birthday gift. Not insignificantly, the place chosen for the march-past was Panipat, the historic battleground north of Delhi—the place, in the words of Col de Lancey Floyd Jones reporting for the New York Times, ‘where Ackbar, the great Mogul, gained his decisive victories, and where the mutiny of 1857 was stamped out’.
Government-employed photographer Lala Deen Dayal was present to record this flamboyant event. As the images in this commemorative album testify, he was more than capable of competently fulfilling his commission; although, at times, you can’t help but think that his images emphasise a shambolic haphazardness—images full of dust and spontaneity—rather than any great show of military pomp and splendour. This liveliness and Deen Dayal’s tendency to shoot from low or unusual vantage points are the defining characteristics of his oeuvre and can be seen as forerunners of the ‘snapshot’ aesthetic that would become one of the features of popular photography in the 1890s.
Histories of the pioneering years of Indian photography are dominated by foreign photographers, and there were fine practitioners among them. Dr John Murray, Linnaeus Tripe, Samuel Bourne, to name a few, supplied images for the ever expanding and enormously popular views trade, which catered to the large tourist market with photographs of picturesque locations both at home and abroad.
From the 1880s though, while other native-born photographers established careers catering to the local market, Deen Dayal dominated the field of elite photography. This commemorative album, for instance, is rounded out with charming views—such as bathing scenes at the ghats of Calcutta and topographical scenes around Agra, Calcutta and Gwalior. It is almost as if Deen Dayal took on the foreign photographers at their own game, and not only equalled them but in many ways surpassed them—through a greater understanding of and sensitivity to the country and its people as well as superior access to the aristocracy and their lives.
Although a draughtsman by training, Deen Dayal’s enviable photographic technical proficiency—first in wet-plate collodion and then in dry-plate collodion—and his fine artist’s eye made for a winning formula, especially when combined with a chameleon-like aptitude in appealing to tastes both inside and outside India.
To say that things were going well for Deen Dayal in the mid to late 1880s would be a vast understatement. He was appointed photographer to the Viceroy in 1885 and, two years later, he was the first and only Indian photographer to be awarded the Royal Warrant of Appointment by Queen Victoria and had also attracted the patronage of the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahbub Ali Khan, Asif Jah VI. The Nizam was ruler of the largest princely state in India, a man of great influence and almost unimaginable wealth—his expenditure on jewels and clothing (he was reputed to have never worn the same clothes twice) were legendary. Deen Dayal operated out of Indore and Secunderabad, the British military cantonment just north of Hyderabad and with the assistance of his two sons also established a studio in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) around 1886.Lala Deen Dayal’s photographs give a distinctive and dynamic view of life in India under the British Raj. The trajectory of his career is truly exceptional and unique. As the first Indian in the field to achieve international fame and recognition, he occupies an important place in photographic history.
in artonview, issue 59, spring 2009