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Looking through the lens of Deen Dayal: a ROM curator digs deep to detail the works of a famed photographer.


In a dusty back room piled with old filing cabinets, ROM South Asian curator Deepali Dewan discovered the Rosetta stone of her research on 19th-century Indian photographer Raja Deen Dayal. Though he's India's best-known photographer, Deen Dayal's works have never before been explored in a major publication.

Dewan was seeking the registers, said to reside in an archive in India, that identified all the photos taken by Dayal's studio. The problem was that the archive had been inaccessible to scholars for more than a decade for various reasons, the most dramatic of which was that a cow had died there and the smell was still dissipating. But Dewan, who joined the ROM in 2002, persisted. After six years of sleuthing on three continents, she found not only the original registers, but the only surviving microfilm copy made by one of Dayal's descendants. Back at the ROM, Dewan digitized it and made sure that this valuable record equalling more than 1,000 hand-written pages would never again be lost to history.

"Archival research is often very much like archaeology," says the New Delhi-born US-raised curator. "You uncover things that change your whole view of history." Deen Dayal produced more than 40,000 images in his lifetime, but to Dewan's surprise, he did not take all the studio's photographs. "After a certain date he had many staff photographers." Another surprise was Dayal's mastery of public relations: as well as the elite residents of Bombay, his patrons ranged from the British colonial administration to the wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad.

The ROM holds some 500 Dayal photographs, whose subjects Dewan is identifying as part of her work on South Asian visual arts--a great job for someone who grew up as a keen reader of 19th-century art books.


"One of the things that excites me about this research is discovering how photography shapes our understanding of the past and present," says Dewan. "Sitting here in 2010, we can't even imagine a world without the photographic image. Photographs are the water in our fishbowl, so much a part of how we live that we don't even notice them any more."

With her next project, tracing the history of Indian photography, Dewan will continue to mine for that understanding by digging through more archives, recording oral histories, and talking to photographers. "In Toronto there's a large South Asian diaspora community, many of whom were part of making photographic history back home," she says. This precious resource right on Dewan's doorstep will undoubtedly help her to uncover more of India's hidden visual history. o

Deen Dayal: Vision, Modernity, and Photographic Culture in 19th-century India by Deepali Dewan and Deborah Hutton will be released in 2011.

Say Cheese

Using a recovered microfilm, ROM researcher Deepali Dewan was able to match one of Raja Deen Dayal's images to a newspaper description--the first photograph ever taken by flash in the kingdom of Hyderabad. It was taken at a theatre performance. When the audience saw the flash and then a puff of smoke, they were sympathetic at what they thought was the photographer's dismal failure. But to everyone's astonishment, the newspaper reported that Deen Dayal had produced a beautiful image.


Dr. Deepali Dewan


Department of World Cultures

Academic Positions

2002-present Curator Royal Ontario Museum Assistant Professor Department of Fine Art History, University of Toronto

1999-2000 Visiting Instructor Carleton College, Northfield, MN

1995-1997 Curatorial assistant Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN

1994 Curatorial Intern The Asia Society Galleries, New York, NY


2001 PhD in Art History, University of Minnesota

1995 MA, University of Minnesota

1993 BA (honours), McGill University
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Title Annotation:Our Curators
Author:Jack, Lee-anne
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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