Lala Deen Dayal – Doyen of Indian Photography


“…it is nearly impossible to peruse history books on late 19th century India and not come across a Dayal photograph being used as an illustration.”

– Deborah Hutton and Deepali Dewan

Photographs are not merely experiences captured but they also serve as an evidence to contemplate upon the past left behind.


Interior of the Mehrangarh Fort (top left), Street view of Jaipur (top right), City view of Jodhpur (below right), circa 1895 CE. From the Curzon Collection: ‘Views of places proposed to be visited by Their Excellency Lord & Lady Curzon during Autumn Tour 1902 CE. Collection & Copyright: British Library.

If one delves into the world of 19th century India, they are bound to stumble upon at least one photograph clicked by Lala Deen Dayal. He was an Indian photographer who has become immortal through his photographs which covered minute details with highly accentuated perspectives. Whether you know him or not, you probably won’t be able to resist the appeal and charm of the photographs he clicked1- Portrait of Deen DayalPortrait of Lala Deen Dayal, photographed by E.Craig (staff photographer), April 1904 CE. Courtesy : Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

By 1850s photography was gaining wide popularity in the country and among the princely states. Although not much is known about the early photographers, Lala Deen Dayal’s name has become a synonym for 19th century photography in India. From documenting the exotic life of the Maharajas, the British officials, to India’s marvellous architectural heritage and beautiful landscapes, his oeuvre encompassed it all. No wonder then that the Bombay Gazetteer, upon his death in 1905, gave him the status of being the “first great Indian photographer” while the Government of India issued a 500-rupee postage stamp in 2006 in his honour. With his studios successfully running in Indore, Secunderabad and Bombay back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they captured some of the most illustrious and iconic moments in the history of India in photographs, estimated to be over 30000 in number.

13-His Highness the Maharaja of Scindia, c. 1885-1887, Cleveland museum

His Highness the Maharaja of Scindia, circa 1885-1887 CE. Collection & Copyright: Cleveland Museum of Art.

16-His Highness Maharana of Odeypur, 1890, British LibraryHis Highness the Maharana of Udaipur (perhaps Maharana Fateh Singh), circa 1890 CE. From the Curzon Collection: ‘Views in Meywar’. Collection & Copyright: British Library


His Highness the Maharaja of Rewa and classmates (left), His Highness Maharaja of Rewa at Prayer, circa 1885-1887 CE. Collection & Copyright: Cleveland Museum of Art

Born in 1844 at Sardhana (Uttar Pradesh, India) to a family of devout Jains who were jewellers, Dayal took to the camera in around 1870s while working as a surveyor for the Public works department of Central India Agency in Indore. This is where he met Maharaja Tukoji Rao II of Indore, his first patron. Tukoji Rao II encouraged him to step into the world of photography and introduced him to Sir Henry Daly assigning him the task of photographing Prince of Wales’ visit in 1876. This was a turning point in Dayal’s life, as this largely self-trained photographer was on his way to explore photography and make a successful career out of it. In 1878 he took a professional step forward to document the Great Stupa at Sanchi. From accompanying Sir Le Griffin to Bundelkhand to photographing the zenana women of Hyderabad, from selling photographs as souvenirs to selling photographic albums for upto 200 rupees, he worked tirelessly for over a dozen Royal families and many middle class families.


Sanchi Stupa, Kandariya Mahadev Temple of Khajuraho, Teli ka Mandir in Gwalior Fort, Orchha Palace and Jahaz Mahal of Mandu. All the pictures are from the British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum collection dated 1882

Taking a two year furlough from his government job in 1885, he went on an extensive tour of India documenting major places in colonial India. But his career took a big leap when he started working for the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Mahboob Ali Khan (reign: 1866-1911 CE) – the then largest and wealthiest state in British Raj. In fact, after working in his Secunderabad studio for two years, Dayal was honoured with the position of court photographer of the Nizam. The reason behind this is significant.

One night in 1894, Dayal received an official order to leave for Pakhal jungle where the Nizam was enjoying Shikar (hunt). He was ordered to capture the scene. This was an exhausting task- leaving for Pakhal at 2 am in a special train, reaching Mankota after five hours and directly heading to capture the scene, working till two or three in the noon. More dangerous but rewarding was the time when a few days later Dayal’s shikar van (a large wagon drawn by horses) tumbled in the middle of Pakhal river. Although Dayal and his team were able to survive this accident, they had to urgently rush to photograph the Nizam and after presenting the iconic photograph of him standing victoriously over the tiger (see the image), the Nizam was so delighted that he not only bestowed him with the title of ‘Musavvir-i Asaf Jahi (Artist of the Asaf Jahis), but also composed an Urdu verse in his honour.

Ajab ye karte hain tasvir kamaal kamaal

Ustaadon ke hain Ustad Raja Deen Dayal

In the art of photography surpassing all,

The master of masters is Raja Deen Dayal.

17-Nizam of Hyderabad after hunt, Chowmahlla Palace collectionThe Nizam of Hyderabad Mir Mahboob Ali Khan posing after hunt, June 1894 CE. Courtesy: Chowmahalla Palace collection.

Later, during a durbar held in the celebration of the Nizam’s birthday, Dayal was honoured with the prolific title of “Raja Bahadur Musavvir Jung” roughly translated as “Bold warrior of Photography” and was also appointed the official court photographer with an impressive salary of rupees 600 per month. Dr. Deborah Hutton notes “The Nizam further ordered the salary to be payable retrospectively for six years in honour of the work Dayal had done during that time.”


The Drawing Room of Chowmahalla Palace, Hyderabad (left), Principal street showing Char Minar, Hyderabad (right), circa 1880 CE. From the Curzon Collection: ‘Views of HH the Nizam’s Dominions, Hyderabad, Deccan, 1892’. Collection & Copyright: British Library

Dayal’s fame grew and though he retired from his studio in 1894, he kept working for the Nizam, developing his firm “ Lala Deen Dayal & Sons”  and establishing a studio in Bombay, which was largely handled by his two sons- Dharamchand and Gyanchand. It was not merely a studio but also hosted events, most notably the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in 1897. Perhaps, the biggest honour for Dayal was the Royal Warrant which the studio received in the same year. Earlier in 1887, he had already been appointed as a photographer for Queen Victoria.

11-Picnic party, Mashobra, c. 1885-1887, ClevelndPicnic party, Mashobra, circa 1885-1887 CE. Collection & Copyright: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Dayal passed away in 1905 ushering the downfall of his studios that incurred huge financial losses. In his career of over thirty years, Dayal’s awe-inspiring progress from an amateur photographer to a professional one is echoed in his photographs. Many storerooms and boxes filled with his photographs are eagerly waiting to be discovered. It has been more than a century since he passed away, but his legacy lives on through the majestic black and white vignettes that he has left behind of the world he inhabited and which has so dramatically changed.


The Great Elephant, Sardhana (top left), circa 1880-90 CE. Collection & Copyright: Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Baroda college (top right), circa 1875-1900 CE. Collection & Copyright: Asian Art Museum. Elephant fight ,Udaipur (middle right), circa 1885 CE. From the Curzon Collection: ‘Views in Meywar’. Collection & Copyright: British Library. Lake view from the Udaipur city palace (bottom right), circa 1875-1900 CE. Collection & Copyright: Asian Art Museum.

Author – Vinit Vyas

He can be contacted at








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