The photographer who immortalized British Viceroys and Maharajahs
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The photographer who immortalized British Viceroys and Maharajahs
His Eminence Commander in Chief and Party, Simla, c. 1885–87. Raja Deen Dayal (Indian, 1844–1905). Albumen print; 19.5 x 27.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 2016.266.4

by Will Heinrich

NEW YORK, NY.- In 1887, a photographer named Lala Deen Dayal took a picture of Frederick Temple-Blackwood, First Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. The men were in Shimla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, because the British colonial government in India moved there every summer to escape the heat of Kolkata. Dufferin was the British viceroy, and Dayal, who had worked as a surveyor for the colonial government before leaving to pursue his passion as a freelancer, was his official photographer.

Dayal posed Dufferin, a short, balding, goateed, intelligent-looking man, at the center of the photo, behind a round table covered in a patterned cloth. To either side of him sit three other men, all seven constituting the Supreme Council of Government of India. Beneath them is an enormous, intricately patterned carpet; behind them, a nondescript curtain and rough wooden walls. They look like what they were: fresh conquerors who hadn’t yet built themselves palaces.

They also look pretty discomfited by the camera in what were still its early days. Two look at the viceroy, who leans aside to deliver some incidental remark; one gazes at the floor; two stare stiffly into nowhere; and only one councilor, like a faint glimmer of self-awareness within the raj, peers suspiciously into the lens.

The photograph became one of a deep file of stock images available in Dayal’s shop. One souvenir album, assembled by an unidentified purchaser and later broken apart, was partially acquired by the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2016. In “Raja Deen Dayal: King of Indian Photographers,” the museum combines this cache of 37 photographs with roughly contemporary miniature paintings and objets to create a small but incisive look at cross-cultural projections of power — Dayal was official photographer to the British military commander in chief, too, as well as to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who gave him the title Raja.

An acute wall label next to “His Eminence Commander in Chief and Party, Simla” draws attention to the tiger skin on the floor, flung carelessly under British feet; beside the photo, on the gallery wall, to illustrate the Indian association of this animal with royalty, hangs a 19th century painting from Rajasthan showing a “Tiger Hunt of Ram Singh II.”

It’s just one of the show’s many examples of the casual degradations of imperial rule, which also include an English-style silver teapot with a goddess for a handle, and a painting of an Indian servant walking British dogs — a mordant wall label notes that Indian art traditionally pictured “dogs and jackals” only in cremation grounds. But it’s the rows of Indian servants lined up like stiff accessories behind rickshaws, buggies and English garden parties that really stand out. They’re shocking, but the fact that they were photographed that way by an Indian photographer complicates any easy read of what they mean.

Also in 1887, give or take a year or two, Dayal made a portrait of “His Highness the Maharaja of Rewa,” one of the semi-independent “princely states” of central India. Draped in gold and jewels, with a stylized footprint of Vishnu painted on his forehead, slumping comfortably sideways in an ornate chair with his stocking feet curled underneath, the boy king is pretty much the opposite of the severely styled Dufferin. But Dayal posed and composed Indian royalty exactly as he did his photographs of British leadership, with the most important person in the center, often surrounded by advisers and subordinates. Head-on to the camera, stately but not overly formal, viceroys and rajahs alike became accessibly human but at imposing removes. In retrospect, Dayal’s pictures aren’t just portraits of royal and imperial power — they’re portraits of the nascent power of photography.

‘Raja Deen Dayal: King of Indian Photographers’

Through Feb. 4 at Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 E. Blvd., Cleveland; 216-421-7350,

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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