Dayal’s Secrets Revealed

It is a week for revealing secrets.

Twitter kicked off Museum Week yesterday – an initiative that will give users behind-the-scenes access to museums across the UK, France, Italy and other parts of Europe. Tweets and images shared by museums and galleries of their collections on Monday using the #MuseumWeek hashtag showed a day in the life of curators and other staff, with additional themes in store for the rest of the week. I was re-tweeting my favourite images for much of the day and they came from beyond European borders initially set out by Twitter. There really are no limits anymore – my tweets were re-tweeted from Belgium to Venice to down the street here in Toronto. Being a marketer and digital strategist by trade, who often works with cultural institution clients, I think it’s a great way to get conversations about culture and art started.

Many museums were slower than most for-profit entities to use tools like social media to their advantage, but that is quickly changing. Once dark and closed places are now opening their doors and vaults to the world, quite literally bones and all. They are learning that the learnings for us are not always in the final and finished product on display, but in the delight of the process. These are some of the best storytellers in the world, and they are finally starting to speak to us in a language we can relate to, in an engaging and interesting way.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, for one, has commissioned TVO, an educational media organization, to help tell some of their stories. The ROM kicked off a six-week TV series appropriately titled, Museum Diaries in late February. Having shared tales from the authenticity of artifacts to the dissection of DNA to a research expedition to the rain forests of Borneo, the next episode looks at the making of a photo exhibition of one of the most renowned photographers in 19th-century India.

Between Princely India & the British Raj: The Photography of Raja Deen Dayal was on display at the ROM last year and tonight’s episode of Museum Diaries follows the Museum’s World Cultures Curator, Dr. Deepali Dewan through the planning, preparation and launch of the exhibit.

1.Portrait of Raja Deen Dayal, April 1904, E. Craig, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons studio, Bombay
1. Portrait of Raja Deen Dayal; April 1904, E. Craig, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons studio, Bombay

If you don’t know Dayal’s work, the episode will enlighten you about the master portrait photographer of elite British and Indian society who in 1894, was appointed as the official court photographer to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad. He was an innovator when it came to developing glass plate negatives and albumen prints, producing more than 30,000 images over the course of his career. His was the first Indian business to receive the Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria.

I am guessing that his work and even his name have been hidden from view for many – until now. Here are some of my favourite images that reveal the characters and fashion of the day, through Dayal’s lens.

2.Mr. J. N. Tata & Family, 22 March 1898, C. Schultz, Staff Photographer, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons
2. Mr. J. N. Tata & Family; 22 March 1898, C. Schultz, Staff Photographer, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons

The Tatas – always such a graceful family – and always at the height of fashion. Note the full-sleeved sari blouses and the variety of toppers. (There seems to be a fez-tive vibe in the air this week.) I also love the menswear – whether eastern or western garb, it was all dandy.

3.Duke of Connaught and Royal Party Watching Sports at Fateh Maidan , January 1889, Raja Deen Dayal
3. Duke of Connaught and Royal Party Watching Sports at Fateh Maidan; January 1889, Raja Deen Dayal

One could write a dissertation on the moustaches of the day, alone. Hats (yes, more) would be another volume.

4. Sir Asman Jah’s Fancy Dress Ball, Bashirbagh, February 1890, Raja Deen Dayal
4. Sir Asman Jah’s Fancy Dress Ball, Bashirbagh; February 1890, Raja Deen Dayal

This is a ball I’ve attended in my couture dreams many times.

5. Prime Minister of Hyderabad, Sir Asman Jah; circa 1887, Raja Deen Dayal
5. Prime Minister of Hyderabad, Sir Asman Jah; circa 1887, Raja Deen Dayal

While the photo above was taken in 1887, you can still see traces of this military tailoring and swirling embellishment during almost every Fashion Week. I recall Burberry’s modern maharajahs, Alexander McQueen’s divine cape from his Angels & Demons collection and Ralph Lauren’s zardosi encrusted woollen coats from recent memory.

6. His Royal Highness Prince Damrong and Party after Breakfast, Asmangarh; 1892, Raja Deen Dayal
6. His Royal Highness Prince Damrong and Party after Breakfast, Asmangarh; 1892, Raja Deen Dayal

I love the stories these photos tell, but more importantly the questions they ask. Who are all of these people? What was India like in 1892? What does one serve HRH Price Damrong and his party for breakfast?

7. Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan of Hyderabad; circa 1892, Raja Deen Dayal
7. Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan of Hyderabad; circa 1892, Raja Deen Dayal

The three-piece suit, circa 1892.

Nizam of Hyderabad receive the Duke and Duchess of Connaught at the 8. Railway Station; January 1889, Raja Deen Dayal
8. Nizam of Hyderabad receive the Duke and Duchess of Connaught at the Railway Station; January 1889, Raja Deen Dayal

Corsets AND helmets!

9. Viceroy Curzon with the Maharaja of Gwalior; circa 1903, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons Studio
9. Viceroy Curzon with the Maharaja of Gwalior; circa 1903, Raja Deen Dayal & Sons Studio

In the age of digital photography, it’s lovely to stop and get lost in Dayal’s world. These vintage photographs are visual reminders of a lush history, but also of the technology and innovation of the day. Dayal’s work was ground-breaking over a hundred years ago.

This TV series is part of the ROM’s Centennial celebrations, which started with a blockbuster exhibition that dares to reveal treasures from China’s Forbidden City. The theme of uncovering the hidden continues in May, with the ROM Revealed weekend.

All of this revealing by previously locked institutions does something wonderful – it opens up conversation – about culture, about our past, about our connections to each other.

These stories are important – whether they are told in 24-minute videos or a series of images or 140 characters at a time.

The Dayal episode airs Tuesday March 25 at 7:30 PM EST in Ontario, but will be online the following day for the rest of the world to see. Watch previously aired episodes.

Need more vintage Indian photos? Get a cup of chai and look through these.

Images: 1, 2, © 2011 courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; 
remaining are © Royal Ontario Museum and all are made available via the ROM. 

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