A nineteenth-century photographer, doctor and academic, Narayan Daji was one of the few Indian members of the influential Photographic Society of Bombay and also one of its earliest council members (1857–61). A largely self-taught photographer, he achieved distinction through the knowledge and proficiency he demonstrated and the social privileges he had access to as a well-known public figure, medical practitioner and academic in Bombay (now Mumbai). Though known by many for his philanthropy, scholarship and passion for teaching, he is most commonly associated with early photography in and of Bombay and its surroundings. Daji’s work, which spanned landscape and architectural views and ethnographic studies and portraits, was exhibited at the Photographic Society of Bombay, the Bengal Photographic Society and featured in the ethnographic album The Oriental Races and Tribes, Residents and Visitors of Bombay (1863).
Daji was born in a village near the present-day Maharashtra–Goa border. Although he came from a humble background — his father Vitthal Daji was a poet and painter of figurines — he, like his brother Bhau Daji Lad, received his education at Elphinstone College and then Grant Medical College, Bombay, from which he graduated in 1852. Although there is no published information on how he was first introduced to photography, some scholars believe that he may have taken an interest in it while studying practical chemistry, at which he excelled. He was also likely guided and influenced in part by his brother’s more fleeting involvement in photography. Daji applied for the position of lecturer for Elphinstone College’s first course on photography in 1855, citing his many awards and a glowing recommendation, but was ultimately turned down in favour of photography studio-owner and secretary of the Society WHS Crawford. Already comfortable with the waxed paper process, he submitted his photographs to the Bombay Photographic Society, of which two, including one of a Rajput man from Kathiawar smoking a hookah, were displayed at its first annual exhibition. Over the next year, he shared more images, this time of architectural views of the city, with the Society, which were well-received, leading to his formal induction in 1856.
For the Society’s annual exhibition the following year, he contributed over two hundred photographs, mostly of architectural studies and landscape, attracting high praise from viewers. One newspaper even remarked ironically in their review of the exhibition that he surpassed Crawford in his photographic ability. That year, thirty one of his photographs — mostly ethnographic studies that comprised images of snake charmers, toddy tappers, ryots (farmers), Bhils, as well as group and individual portraits — were featured at the annual exhibition of the Bengal Photographic Society. From around 1858 and over the next decade, he operated his own studio at Rampart Row (now known as K. Dubash Marg), an emerging hub for independent photographic studios, making photographs using waxed paper negatives as well as the wet collodion process.
Throughout his practice, his photographic direction — from landscapes and monuments in the 1850s to ethnographic portraiture from the 1860s — were aligned with or anticipated the British government’s interests in and imperatives for photographic documentation. As Daji’s work was not produced under financial or colonial compulsions, its success has been attributed to a combination of his social position and the commercially and visually fertile location of his practice. While the culturally diverse and cosmopolitan character of Bombay lent itself well to his ethnographic projects, his social stature and worldview, which he shared with the British elite, brought him closer to the elitist preoccupation with the practicalities and colonially driven objectives of photography. The resulting distance created between his lens and his subjects, and the attendant objectivity, a benchmark of colonial photography, ensured his success among his peers.
Apart from photography, Daji was also involved in political and civic life, being appointed Sheriff of Bombay in 1856. As a medical practitioner, he ran a dispensary at Nagdevi where he, later joined by his brother, provided free service to the less privileged. He was also a professor of botany and pharmacology at his alma mater, Grant Medical College, during which time he published several texts on chemicals and dyes.
Daji’s photographs were displayed publicly for the first time at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, as part of the exhibition The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai, 1855-1940 (2010). Many of his surviving photographs and negatives are, at the time of writing, part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography. Daji passed away in 1875 from bilious remittent fever.
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