Back to the photographic moment
Digital recreation of Raja Deen Dayal's oeuvres
'Every photograph is a certificate of presence.'1
'The photograph does not call upon the past…The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.'2
This is a need that may be difficult to comprehend for a generation that seeks quick salvation and instant immortality, an assurance and accessibility made possible by dint of the digital revolution. Every one, so to say, is therefore a photographer. Documenting, manipulating or fabricating the present, no longer requires days of careful planning-ahead or coming up with extensive logistical arrangements. The click-check-correct/delete routine has given a free run to shutterbugs, and diluted the laborious rigour associated with the craft of photography, many degrees.
This shift, however, has taken many years to come about. The history of the introduction of photography in India and its evolution has been a subject of much academic research and hardly needs special glossing over. The earliest records show how it was almost entirely the domain of the colonisers, devised not so much for aesthetic purposes as for the vital purpose of documenting and keeping visual records of whatever was encountered. The colonial obsession with classification and categorisation at all levels – from the ethnographic to the anthropological, the natural to the architectural – found an ideal tool in the photographic intervention. In all this documentation, however, certain codes of visual conduct were adhered to, certain ocular decorum followed. It may be interesting to observe, in photograph after photograph belonging to the colonial times how the stares and gazes were far from what we today understand as a coordinated, conscious, 'photogenic' poses. They displayed, as Jyotindra Jain writes, 'a passive uneasy gaze'. This held true for both the hegemonized and the hegemon. Gazes were meant to be stoic and bereft of unselfconscious candour or of carefree abandon. This, by and large, then had been the norm from the time of introduction of photography in India till the incipient stages of nationalism.
Raja Deen Dayal was one of those few who enjoyed a uniquely privileged position in the socio-political matrix of India, swinging between the twin poles of indigenous royalty and colonial bureaucracy with equal élan. It was the daguerreotype which was invented in Europe in the 1840's and came to India soon after. By the time Deen Dayal took to it, the photographic scene had become rather vibrant. Societies, journals, and the necessary requisite paraphernalia were in order, which made his task somewhat smoother. And, also because photography itself hadn't quite slipped into the domains of a hobby that could be pursued in leisure and luxury, by Indians at any rate, Deen Dayal's acceptance into, what was until then largely the field of the European, is nothing short of remarkable.
To begin with, he, of course, had to conform diligently to the dictates of the bureaucratic needs and, in so doing, mastered the craft so well that it became difficult, even for the likes of us, situated at a time-distance of more than a century, to be able to tell them from the works of celebrated European photographers like Samuel Bourne or William Pigou or James Ferguson. It was not just the craft that he mastered well, having been introduced to while he was a student at the Thomson Civil Engineering College, Roorkee. More importantly, he was able to get under the skin of the requisite visual politics demanded by the Raj. He was appointed to document sites of historical importance of Gwalior, in doing which he stuck punctiliously to the designated ethos as chalked out by his colonial masters. And his success impressed the Archaeological Survey of India enough for him to soon become their blue-eyed boy. Panoramic views of entire scapes, positing humans in front of ruins in order to give a sense of height and proportion, capturing vast vistas, all fell in neatly with the colonial schema of documenting India's glorious material past. It is interesting to note that many of these images helped strengthen and consequently sell the idea of India as the exotic orient, India as the land of unending riches, mystics, and rajas, to the world outside. And actively or tacitly, Deen Dayal became a collaborator to this project. Of course, it would be unfair to blame him for conscious betrayal, for the ideas of nationalism were yet in embryo. He was just doing his job, and very well at that. He was able to set standards for ages to come for not just an idea on the judicious mix of the 'scientific category of documentation and the aesthetic order of the picturesque' but also to leave back for posterity, for historical and art-historical inquiry, the rich corpus of an invaluable visual archive.
His aesthetic ideal having been thus set, Deen Dayal took it forward to all his future assignments, employments and, most importantly, to the precincts of his own studio that became responsible for churning out and carrying forward his brand of aesthetic philosophy down the ages. This is evident from the images he captured while in the payroll of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Entrusted with the duty to capture the life and lifestyle of the much westernized Nizam, Deen Dayal incorporated the European way of looking at the subject from behind the lens in this particular oeuvre as well. There was a catch, however. The Nizam, for all his desire to be captured as a westernized, modernized man, however, intended to be chronicled in a manner that highlighted his possessions, his regalia, his splendour, and his positioning in the best possible light, without making any compromise to his dignity and station.
Hunting scenes therefore formed an integral part of Deen Dayal's corpus. They were crucial for more reasons than one. They were occasions for easy camaraderie between the colonizer and the native ruler – an event that would put them on equal socio-political footing. It would require only a photographer of intense observational powers and uncanny intuition of the politics of the visual such as Deen Dayal to be able to translate the undercurrents of tension, concomitant of power-plays, played out at different levels: between man and man; between man and animal. Since it was largely the discretion of the photographer to decide the 'pose' and position of his subject, a mere shuffling could provide momentous changes to later-day observers. A case in point would be the photograph that places the Nizam as an unimportant, insignificant speck against the backdrop of a maze of animal skins. Intended originally to showcase the uber-masculine gallantry of the Nizam, it ultimately reduces him to a mere nothing in the larger scheme of cosmic design, by a simple twist of photographic manoeuvring.
Photographs taken-manufactured, let's say, at his studio formed for me the most intriguing part of the entire show. It formed a magnificent part of anyway fascinating history of the rise and development of the studio practices in India. It was spellbinding to see how roles were created, poses defined, backdrops devised – all to give the photograph the 'aura', as Benjamin would have it, of authenticity. Many of them, it must be admitted, continued to abide by the idea of creating 'a' particular image of India – its naked sadhus and fakirs, for instance. The image of the woman, as she would like to be seen from this time onwards, also became a crucial agenda of the studios – fashioning them, their backgrounds, their gazes, in ways suited to depict them as emancipated, thinking, educated, and 'modern'.
Props such as an open book or un-coy gazes helped to convey the message of a changing order far more deftly than ever before.
The exhibition on Raja Deen Dayal's photographs, co-curated by Jyotindra Jain and Pramod KG, at the IGNCA was special for multiple purposes. Almost the entire exhibition was based on the digital recreation of images from the glass-plate negatives that the IGNCA archives acquired from the inheritors of the Raja's assets that, no doubt, helped enrich the processes of historical reconstruction. That apart, it helped us realize – this generation that hardly realizes the worth of the art and science of photography, lost in the mind-boggling haze of digital spoilers – how difficult it was to take photographs in situations of unimaginably low-light conditions, long exposures that couldn't be controlled beyond a point, errant chemicals and, to top it all, a huge mass-base that, being unused to the photographic device and mechanism, needed delicate coaxing and preparing for shots that were meant to capture them in the act (of a procession, a prayer or a meet). One hopes that while the digital revolution has democratized the use of the medium and the capture and extract of meaning, captions and messages from things all and sundry, exhibitions such as these will also remind them of the beauty of patience and, hopefully, caution them against taking the medium for granted that threatens to tilt, ever so often, into domains of voyeurism too. What constitutes it, what doesn't, will, however, be left out of the discourse of the current subject!
'Perhaps we have an invincible resistance to believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth. The photograph, for the first time, puts an end to this resistance: henceforth the past is as certain as the present, what we see on paper is as certain as what we touch.'3
- Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill and Wang, 1980
PAROMA MAITI is a writer and researcher based in Kolkata, India.