Firsts Of Photography In India

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Photography arrived in Europe in the 19th century and didn't take long to travel east to India. So, buckle up your seat belts, cuz we're getting on the time machine and going back in time.

Let's take a look at some of the pioneering moments in the history of photography in India.

First accomplished Indian photographer

In the time when India was under colonial occupation and the medium of photography was visually dominated by Britishers, Raja Deendayal (born to the name Lala Deendayal) became the first Indian to establish his name in the field.

Born to a family of jewellers in Sardhana, Uttar Pradesh, in the early 1840s, Dayal graduated from the Thompson College of Civil Engineering at Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee) in 1866 as a low ranking engineer.

During his days working as an engineer in Indore, he first picked up a passion for photography capturing different monuments using glass plate technology, which preceded photographic film as a medium to capture objects.

It was in 1874 that Dayal to become a full time photographer.

His first patron was Maharaja Tukoji Rao of Indore, who alongside Sir Lepel Griffin, agent to the Governor General of the Central Provinces, encouraged the budding photographer not only to hone his craft but also set up his first studio in Indore. In the early 1880s, Griffin commissioned him to do archaeological photographs. The result was a portfolio of 86 photographs, known as "Famous Monuments of Central India".

Dayal’s unique skill set in using light, finding different angles and equipment, attracted many wealthy clients from the British colonial elite and Indian royals. Just two years after he had gone full time, word of his talents spread far and wide.

In 1885, he became the court photographer to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, who awarded him the title Raja Bahadur Musavvir Jung.

Such was his talents that the British royal family commissioned him to produce a portrait of the Prince of Wales.

A little over a decade later, in 1887, Dayal had become “Photographer to Her Majesty the Queen [Victoria]”.

Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he struggled to keep his vast empire of black and white photos intact. When he passed away in 1905, his son, Gyan Chand, tried to keep the enterprise alive, but struggled and eventually thousands of glass plate negatives were sold as scrap material in a local Hyderabad market.

First Indian female photojournalist

Homai Vyarawalla, commonly known by her pseudonym Dalda 13, was India's first woman photojournalist.

She began taking photographs at age 13, with the encouragement of Maneckshaw, then her partner and mentor. In the early years of her career, since Vyarawalla was unknown and a woman, her photographs were published under her husband's name.

Eventually her photography received notice at the national level, particularly after moving to Delhi in 1942 to join the British Information Services.

Some of her most celebrated photographs include those of Nehru’s initiation into prime ministership, the reception hosted by Lord Mountbatten on Independence Day what would later become Rashtrapati Bhavan, the first flag hoisting at the Red Fort, Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral, the Bandung Conference in 1955, and the Dalai Lama entering India for the first time through Sikkim in 1956. 

In 1970, shortly after her husband's death, Homai Vyarawalla decided to give up photography, lamenting "bad behaviour" of the new generation of photographers. She did not take a single photograph in the last 40-plus years of her life.

When asked why she quit photography while at the peak of her profession, she said "It was not worth it anymore. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, like colleagues. But then, things changed for the worst. They were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn't want to be part of the crowd anymore."

She was awarded the National Photo Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2011.

First Indian to pioneer use of colour film

Born in 1942 to an aristocratic family in Rajasthan, Raghubir Singh was a pioneer of color photography in India.

Soon after receiving his first camera, a gift from his older brother, 14-year-old Singh discovered Beautiful Jaipur, Cartier-Bresson’s little-known book published in 1948 and the work of the French master of candid photography (whom he would eventually meet in Jaipur in 1966) became a major influence that would remain throughout his career.

Unlike Cartier-Bresson, however, Singh used colour film, which he felt to be supremely suited to the visual scene in his homeland.

Over the course of his prolific career Singh worked for Indian and international publications including National Geographic,Time and The New York Times and he published 14 well-received books creating an unprecedented portrait of India.

First aerial photograph taken in India

Aerial photography in India dates back to as early as 1920.

Not one, but a large-scale of aerial photographs of Agra city were captured for the first time.

Subsequently, Air Survey Party of the Survey of India took up aerial survey of Irrawaddy Delta forests, which was completed during 1923–24. Later on, several similar surveys were carried out and advanced methods of mapping from aerial photographs were used.

First photographic studio of India

Initially a partnership between three established European photographers – William Howard, Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd, the ‘Howard, Bourne & Shepherd’ studio was set up in Shimla in 1863. It was in 1866, after the departure of William Howard, that the studio received its iconic name, ‘Bourne & Shepherd’.

With agencies all over India, outlets in London and Paris, and a highly-popular mail-order service, Bourne & Shepherd was, at its peak, the most successful commercial firm in 19th and early 20th century India.

Unfortunately, a devastating fire in 1991 destroyed much of the studio's photographic archive and resulted in a severe financial loss to the firm. The long-term impact of the fire, legal difficulties with the Indian government, which owned the studio building, and the increasing dominance of digital technology, finally forced the studio's closure in June 2016.

At its closure, the studio had operated continuously for 176 years.

First photographic society of India

The Photographic Society of Bombay was founded in 1854 – just a year after its counterpart in London – and had enlisted at least 200 members by 1856 with notable figures such as Governor Lord Elphinstone and Lady Canning serving as patrons.

With over two hundred members drawn from varied professional backgrounds, the Bombay Photographic Society and its monthly journal became a successful platform for the exchange of knowledge between local amateurs and a floating population of expert practitioners.