India 1844 – 1905
Courtesan (or woman in a zenana)
c.1885 Title Notes: Raja Venkat Raman Singh (b.1876, ruled 1880-1918)
Place made: Rewa, India
Creation Notes: Raja Venkat Raman Singh (b.1876, ruled 1880-1918)
Materials & Technique: photographs, albumen prints, albumen silver photograph Support: on embossed card
Lala Deen Dayal was the first Indian photographer to have a high profile nationally and internationally. He was born to a Jain family in the large and prosperous province of Uttar Pradesh in northern India and his patrons came from both local and foreign ruling classes. This portrait was possibly made for the Pyare Sahib in the title, in Secunderabad, a military cantonment where Dayal had a branch studio, in addition to his main studio in Hyderabad where he was court photographer to the nizam.
The woman in this portrait is listed in several shots in Dayal’s studio ledger. She stares out at us with confidence and self-possession, perhaps having commissioned the portrait herself, as Dayal did not usually market the crude images of dancing girls, often prostitutes, that were popular with travellers. The Dayal studio portraits of all sitters have a sense of comfortable engagement with the photographer. Higher-class Indian women were prohibited from seeking their portraits because of restrictions against women being viewed by men outside the close family circle. In 1892 Dayal opened one of the first and best-known women-only photographic studios, known as zenana—after the traditional name of women’s quarters—with a British woman as camera operator. Recent research suggests that women were having their portraits taken from the 1860s and that photography played a role in bringing women out of seclusion and into the public arena.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014