8 September 2015

The Mahatta Studio Archives And The India That Could Afford To Document Itself

This piece on India's longest surviving photo studio was published in Vantage, the Caravan magazine's web-only section

An aerial view of Jantar Mantar in Delhi. This photograph was taken from the top of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation building in 1983.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, an unlettered young man from a small town in Gurdaspur district of undivided Punjab fled his landed, farming family because of a murderous feud among his relatives. Having reached his nanihaal—the home of his maternal grandparents—in the colonial hill station of Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh, the young Amar Nath Mehta learnt how to wield a camera from foreign army personnel. When his brother-in-law Sohan Lall Chopra was posted to Srinagar, he realised that the trade that would barely make Amar Nath a living in Dalhousie could prove profitable in the more touristic environs of Kashmir. Amar Nath, who thought of himself as a self-taught photographer, decided he could also be a self-taught businessman. He moved to Srinagar with his younger brother Ram Nath—and so began the saga of one of India's longest-surviving photographic studios that has now completed a century.
 “When Amar Nath Mehta started Mahatta & Co. in 1915 on a houseboat on the Jhelum in Srinagar, photography had already made its mark on the subcontinent,” begins the introduction to the book Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Indian Photography, 1915-2015 (2015), written by Pavan Mehta, Amar Nath's grandson, who now runs the company with his brother Pankaj. This commemorative volume has been published alongside an exhibition of photographs from the Mahatta archive, also called “Picturing a Century,” currently on show at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi. The exhibition is generally more selective than the book, though it opens with some images tracking the progress of a construction site in Lutyens' Delhi which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the IGNCA itself.
The Mahatta show doubles up as family archive and an archive of the nation-state. Early images document the rapid spread of the business, from the remarkable 1918 assemblage on the houseboat under the sign “Mahatta Art Studio” to full-fledged shops in Srinagar, on the Bund, where a branch of the family still runs the 1915 store; a shop in Pahalgam, Gulmarg, which was burnt down in a market fire in the 1930s; branches of the studio in Rawalpindi and Murree that were both abandoned at the time of Partition; and finally one in Delhi, where Mahatta still functions from the studio Amar Nath set up in 1951. Several pictures are from the Mehta family album. Some are stated as being so, such as the one of Sohan Lall Chopra with his wife Lajwanti (née Mehta) who looks terribly young despite her stern spectacles, making it hard to believe that the two children in the centre are hers. Others are undeclared, such as the unnamed studio portrait of a young woman with sparkling eyes and two plaits. This picture, Pankaj informed me as we walked around the show, is of his mother Usha, who married Amar Nath's only son Madan in 1958.
Madan Mehta, who died in 2014 at the age of 82, not only made Mahatta a household name, but was also one of India's most unusual photographers. Mehta is best known for his images of Delhi's modernist architecture that were last seen in the 2012 show Delhi Modern and are also on display at the exhibition now. However, “Picturing a Century” allows us to see Mehta as far more varied in his interests. He did wonderful studio portraits, such as an undated one of Indian model and actress Persis Khambatta in a polka-dot bikini, and another of the Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj in 1980, the intensity of his gaze matched by his tightly clasped hands. Mehta also had a flair for candid portraits: it is visible in his picture of the Dalai Lama at the funeral of India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, looking leaner and meaner than we can imagine him; or former prime minister Indira Gandhi looking none too happy at having to accompany Jackie Kennedy—the wife of John F Kennedy, who was then the president of the USA—to the Cottage Industries Emporium in 1962. He wasn't averse to the newsy image: on 29 May 1964, Madan climbed atop India Gate for an unmatched view of the crowds surrounding Nehru's funeral cortège.
Young Madan was as comfortable in front of a camera as behind it. Apart from candid shots of him as a child and young man, we see the photographer posing at work: arranging a subject, looking through the viewfinder, or simply surveying his own images. The young heir to a photography business was gifted his first Kodak Brownie at eight, and later sent to the Guildford School of Arts and Crafts in Surrey. As he was finishing up his degree in 1953, the school introduced colour photography, and Madan stayed an extra year to pick it up. When he came back to Delhi and joined the business in 1954, Mahatta studio reportedly became the first to introduce colour negatives in India. 
Allied to Madan's interest in the architectural modern was his documentation of industry, and in this field, full-blown colour was often useful. The mounds of yellow powder in  a picture of “Sulphur loading at Vizag port,”, and the vivid red hill terraces of Bailadila's iron ore mines—both taken in 1991—are striking examples. Sometimes, colour also serves as crucial evidence to convince us of the documentary quality of what we are seeing: as it does in the image labelled “First car manufactured by Maruti,” that features an almost unrecognisable box on wheels, with an HRC 6082 numberplate—but of course, bright red.
The majority of Madan’s images, however, continued to be in black and white. Of these, the ones that speak most powerfully to me are invariably of Delhi. The geometrical grandeur and concrete bulk of Raj Rewal's Hall of Nations at Pragati Maidan, JK Chowdhury's Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Kuldip Singh's New Delhi Municipal Council headquarters capture how the Nehruvian vision of technological modernity shaped the monuments of post-independence Delhi. An older monumental Delhi gets some spectacular aerial views—in photographs such as one taken in 1972 of the Qutb complex, in which people still crowd the balcony halfway up the Minar while empty scrub land stretches away towards what is now Vasant Kunj. Pankaj recalled the giddy childhood excitement of going up on a glider with his father and a family friend to take these photographs. “The Gliding Club in Safdarjung, it was a very popular hobby,” he said. “The plane you can see in some of the aerial pictures? It's a tug plane, pulling the glider on which my father is.”
My favourite Delhi image is “South Block,” taken in 1955, in which a young man clad in a kurta-pyjama looks out upon the grand vista of Herbert Baker's still-new Secretariat buildings, framed by an arc of clouds. This picture delivers perfectly on what the theorist Roland Barthes called the studium: a general, enthusiastic commitment to “the ‘details’ which constitute the very raw material of ethnological knowledge.” I recognise the image as Delhi, 'this “me” which likes knowledge, as Barthes put it. I consider its streets then, lengths of dark tarmac interrupted only by white turbans and bicycles; bicycles that are almost non-objects, outlines through which you can still see the world. But this picture also contains a punctum, that element which disturbs the studium, “that accident which pricks me.” It is the cheap metal tiffin-box suspended from the man's left hand, its simple three-tier design echoing the stepped platform on which he stands—but falling far short of its sandstone grandeur.
But to discuss this exhibition in terms of Madan Mehta's personal projects—remarkable as they were—would be to see only half the picture. This is a century of work from what is, after all, a commercial studio. The studio’s oeuvre also offers a sharp insight into who could afford to commission photographs, and what they chose to showcase in them.

There is a clear geographical division between Kashmir and Delhi. The Delhi work is studio-centric, with marriage at its core. It consists of matrimonial photographs of young women, couples seeking to immortalise their union and family portraits. Beyond the studio, one society wedding yields an unforgettable portrait of the celebrated actor-director Raj Kapoor, playing the dholak while chomping on a cigar. Even when the studio’s work extended to institutions, its commissions seem to have been mostly private. These images include one of the Escorts tractor factory in 1979 and a motorcycle assembly line in 1976.
Actor-director Raj Kapoor at a wedding
The Kashmir work is much more bound up with the state. The ex-Maharaja Hari Singh sought Mahatta Studio out for warm, almost domestic portraits of the royal family, as well as to document the palace durbar. Hari Singh’s son and senior Congress leader, Karan Singh, who inaugurated the exhibition at IGNCA, features as a one-year-old in his mother’s arms, in a picture from 1931. The royals—and their British guests—also wished to place their shikar scores on record. No matter how many moth-eaten stag-heads you've seen on the walls of colonial clubs in India's hill stations, it is still a shock to encounter these images from the 1930s and 1940s. Sahibs, memsahibs, military men and maharanis, not a bead of sweat on their brows, standing impassive behind what could turn out to be 240 dead quails, or a dozen wild boars lined up in perfect symmetry.
Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir after a partridge hunt. This picture was taken in 1945.
The Maharajas, at least, only wanted to document their slaughter of animals. The modern nation-state was a different beast. Mahatta Studio's earliest assignments included photographing British colonial troops stationed in Srinagar, with Amar Nath serving as an early embedded photographer. (The book informs us that army circles called him “chacha”). In 1947, “given access” during the India-Pakistan conflict, the studio created some disconcerting images of war. A fighter plane flies across a deep valley, a parachute opening below it in mid-air. A bridge across a river disappears halfway through. Buildings turn to rubble in Baramulla.
Not all the Kashmir images are brutal. Another Baramulla image, almost bucolic by contrast, is of a caravan of bullocks that have sat down on a mountain road, the thatched roofs atop their carts creating a temporary village. There are some rather remarkable pictures of Gandhi in 1947, thronged by ordinary Kashmiris. There is a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru's famous speech in November 1946 from Palladium Cinema at Lal Chowk, where he stood alongside Sheikh Abdullah, the first prime minister of Kashmir, and declared that “The fate of Kashmir will ultimately be decided by the people.” Other images from the 1930s show a lovely, quieter Srinagar. A whole series of hand-tinted photographs cater to the tourist imagination—lakes and shikaras and village belles herding sheep that are adorned with fake, painted-on colour. But here, too, is Nehru, a colour smile tacked on to the black and white. There is no escaping the state.
PS: If you like the piece, you may want to look up the Mahatta Studio book.

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