There’s a large, framed photograph of my grandfather in which he looks nothing like I remember him. A slight man in a dhoti and kurta, which he exchanged sometimes for trousers and shirt. The image was taken, my mother tells me, in a studio in Calcutta. Most of us have been to such studios, or have studio portraits of parents or grandparents fraying in family albums. For, those of the generation before point-and-click cameras, and much before digital or phone cameras, going to a studio to get clicked was a rite of passage. It was something you did after you got married, had a baby, or to mark a family get-together.
But what were these studios and who are the photographers? The heritage studios — Bourne and Shepherd in Kolkata, Mahatta in Delhi, or the Bombay Photo Company — are well known, but there were hordes of others that are unsung. They represent the “forgotten histories” of photography in India, says curator Ram Rahman who showcased two such unknown photographers at the recent United Art Fair (UAF) in New Delhi.
The first of these is Jayesh H Thakker, who photographed film-stars in the 1950s and 1960s. The stars — everyone from Meena Kumari and Madhubala to Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor — would drop in at his small studio near Chitra Cinema in Dadar East in between shooting at the many film studios in the vicinity, says his son, Vimal. “They would sit with Thakker, chat with him, have tea, and playact. Sometimes Thakker would ask them to change or send them back to get more clothes,” says Ram Rahman. “These images are not ‘staged’,” says Vimal. “They were taken on the spur of the moment. My father was influenced a lot by old Hollywood films and tried to replicate the lighting and sense of drama in them.”
OP Sharma, the other photographer in the show, worked around the same time as Thakker and made portraits of stars, too, except that his were stars from the world of music and art — Ravi Shankar, Pandit Jasraj, Kumar Gandharv, Amir Khan, MF Husain, Kanwal Krishna, Svetoslav Roerich, and many more. Sharma’s portraits are shot using complex lighting effects. There’s glamour in them, a quality that many of Sharma’s subjects possessed inherently and was also the outcome of technique — double exposure, for instance, or a beam falling on smoke spiralling from a cigarette.
Studio photography is dead today, passed over by advancing technology and changing lifestyles. But there are a few who recognise that a digital or mobile camera cannot compare with a trained photographer. “Studio portraiture is a five-course meal that point-and-shoot can never hope to satiate,” says well-known photographer Dinesh Khanna.
But it is not studios — the few that remain — that get the bulk of commissions for portraits; rather, it is freelancers and the lately-flourishing tribe of “art” photographers who are in demand. And these are far more expensive than studio portraits, costing anywhere from Rs 25,000 for a three-hour-long shoot to a few lakhs — depending on the photographer’s repute, and the quantum of work.
In Gurgaon near Delhi, Kavita Chopra-Dixit has commissions for portraits flowing thick and fast. A graphic designer by profession and photographer by passion, Chopra-Dixit has been shooting portraits only for a couple of years and specialises in black-and-white, ‘candid’ photographs. She follows her clients into their home, to parties and dinners, shooting for hours together on her Canon 5D in ambient light.
Ajay Rajgarhia, who runs the photographs-only gallery Wonderwall in south Delhi, also does commissioned portraits, specialising in photographing children.