It’s an unusual sight: a banner advertising Raja Deen Dayal‘s permanent gallery, surrounded by a pile of boxes and other back-alley kind of equipment. The Diwali lights hanging over the tree add to the kitsch.
The peculiar setting somewhat de-glorifies Dayal’s pre-eminent status as one of India’s earliest photographers, almost rendering him–and his history– innocuous. The irony peaks when you get to know that the location of the permanent gallery, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), not only has a large collection of the photographer’s negatives and prints, it also archives India’s early photographic history to a great extent.
The curatorial setup of the permanent gallery, inaugurated two years ago at IGNCA (Delhi), has been criticised for not doing justice to Dayal’s story. Reviewing the gallery’s opening, Ella Datta noted the display “merely titillates and in the end leaves the serious viewer dissatisfied” because the arrangement of the objects seemed “makeshift”, which deserved better finishing and lighting. Set in a basement, the “low-ceilinged rooms do little to focus on the magnificence of imagery that Deen Dayal sought to evoke.” She added that the gallery only offered a glimpse of IGNCA’s vast repository of early photography in India, where the medium arrived sometime in the 1840s.
Given the way archives belonging to an important period in Indian history have been handled, should it come as a surprise that an important figure in India’s early photography history has been made to look nondescript?
In an article published on the lensman’s death anniversary, Manu Pillai writes about the struggles of Gyan Chand, who tried to keep his father’s photography business alive but rising competition and decline of royal patronage (which cemented Dayal’s rise as a royal photographer) made it difficult. In fact, when his son died a large number of glass-plate negatives had to be sold as scrap material in the city of Hyderabad, where Dayal was earlier appointed as a photographer to the nizam and even set up a studio.
The sense of something historically significant being discarded is metaphorically evoked at this nondescript setting, showing the Raja Deen Dayal banner.
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