Colonial India for a post-colonial world: A review of the ROM’s latest photography exhibition

The scores of photographs in the newest exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) are all the more revealing because we know what happened in the century after they were captured. Between Princely India & the British Raj: The Photography of Raja Deen Dayal records nineteenth-century colonial India but tells a story that continues long after Victoria’s imperial rule.

Raja Deen Dayal was born in Sardhana, India in 1844. While working as a land survey photographer for the British colonial government in northern India, he became an expert in developing glass plate negatives and albumen prints. In a career that yielded 30,000 photos, Deen Dayal owned his own commercial studio, photographed princes and generals, was the official photographer to India’s richest man, and became the first Indian business owner to be awarded a Royal Warrant.india group

ROM senior curator Dr. Deepali Dewan credits Deen Dayal with almost singlehandedly creating the image popular image of the country that exists to this day. And certainly the India portrayed in Deen Dayal’s work will be familiar to anyone who knows their Rudyard Kipling. All the stock figures of romantic colonialism are present: maharajahs’ opulent palaces; toff-nosed diplomats riding elephants trains; dashing tiger hunters showing off their kill; the iron bridges of the Bombay to Calcutta railway. Turn one of the photos sideways, it seems, and Douglas Fairbanks and Gunga Din may fall out.

But the exhibition offers a look at another side of India as well. Deen Bayal’s studio work includes portraits of the burgeoning Indian merchant class, which was amassing more and more wealth and influence as the nineteenth century ended. The photojournalistic images in the collection depict victims of natural disaster, indentured labourers toiling at a quarry, orphans living in a primitive tent camp.

The evidence of massive wealth inequality between working Indians and their British governors, and the growing agency of the country’s middle classes, are poignant hints of the turbulent India yet to come. Fewer than 50 years after Deen Bayal’s death, India would be a self-governing state, split in two and embroiled in conflict but, at least officially “free” from colonial oppression.

Dewan and Dr. Deborah Hutton, the pair whose decade of research made this exhibition possible, also co-authored book, Raja Deen Dayal: Artist-Photogrpaher in Nineteenth-Century India, which became available to the public on May 9.

Between Princely India & the British Raj will be at the ROM until Jan. 12, 2014.