The Family Of Photographers That Captured 20th-Century India

The Family Of Photographers That Captured 20th-Century India
(L) Kirti Narain & (R) Mahatta & Co.

For 70 years, Mahatta & Co. has been a permanent fixture in Connaught Place’s Shankar Market. An entrance through a messy back lane opens out into a plush studio and office on the first floor. A blast of air-conditioned air wafts through the glass door as people come and go. But it’s a quiet Friday afternoon, and things are dormant post lunch. Pavan Mehta, 59, sits in his office poured over his laptop, currently in the process of digitally archiving over 2.5 lakh photographs. This is the legacy of his family, three generations of which have captured 20th century India in rare images.

Founder Amar Nath Mehta opened the first shop in Srinagar, on the Bund facing the Jhelum, in 1915. Having run away from his home in Gurdaspur, Punjab, after his parents were killed in a property feud, AN Mehta first picked up photography from some British soldiers in Dehradun. Within the decade, the Mahatta name (a variation of ‘Mehta’ so the British could pronounce it) was spread across the northern and north-western region of pre-independence India. Two shops ran out of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, and another was opened in Rawalpindi in present-day Pakistan. During the Indo-Pak war of 1947-48, the family moved from Kashmir to Delhi, where the most famous Mahatta studio was eventually opened. Other than the Delhi studio, today, only the Srinagar shop exists, predominantly as a museum of archives and a café. The one in Rawalpindi was left behind after partition and the Gulmarg and Pahalgam shops were gutted in a fire even before. Last year, Pavan and his younger brother Pankaj took the painful decision of closing their retail camera showroom on the ground floor of the Delhi studio, after seven decades of service. “It was the right thing to do. People would come to us and take advice about cameras, and then buy them from Amazon or Flipkart instead,” says Pavan. Regardless, the Mahattas have an enduring legacy that outlives the expiration of film photography or retail outlets.

Image courtesy of Mahatta & Co.

Mahatta & Co’s Portfolio

“My father may have been one of the first Indians to study photography in England,” says Pavan. In 1954, when AN Mehta’s son, Madan, came back from college, he introduced colour negative processing to the business, reportedly making Mahatta & Co the first photo studio in India to do so. Madan went on to become one of the most established photographers of independent India, notably photographing Delhi’s modernist architecture in the Nehruvian-era. Up until his death in 2014, Madan was actively involved in the business and was often interviewed by journalists in the erstwhile camera showroom, which now houses a restaurant.

During a recent cleaning at the studio, the family found an envelope of undeveloped negatives in a box. Scribbled on the envelope in Madan’s handwriting was “Queen’s visit, negatives destroyed”. Intrigued, Pavan and Pankaj were able to recover a portion of the negatives to find a splendid aerial shot of Queen Elizabeth’s convoy driving through Connaught Place in January 1961. What Madan couldn’t salvage at the time was recovered years later by his sons, using digital technology.

Several iconic shots of Delhi’s cityscape are credited to Madan’s name. In a 2012 exhibition titled Delhi Modern: The Architectural Photographs of Madan Mahatta’, his works from the late 1950s to mid-1980s were displayed, including photos of when Hall of Nations, Delhi’s iconic exhibition venue designed by Raj Rewal was being constructed in 1981. In 2017, the same year Mahatta & Co let go of its retail shop, Hall of Nations was also demolished to accommodate India Trade Promotion Organisation’s (ITPO) redevelopment plans. Madan’s photographs of Joseph Stein’s India International Centre (c. 1962), JK Chowdhury’s Indian Institute of Technology (c. 1968) and Shiv Nath Prasad’s Shriram Centre (c. 1968) are a unique documentation of how the Nehruvian idea of modernity tied up with the architectural style of post-independence structures in Delhi. In 1964, Madan climbed atop India Gate to capture Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral procession, a striking image of defence troops marching in honour of the first Prime Minister, who died in office.

Photographed by Kirti Narain for Homegrown

The Mahattas were also frequently patronised by royalty and the well-to-do. Through the early years, AN Mehta shared a close relationship with the last ruling Maharaja of Kashmir and was invited to photograph the royal family. Maharaja Hari Singh’s son, Karan Singh, who wrote the foreword to Pavan­­­’s book, Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Indian Photography, is pictured as an infant in an image from 1931. Also pictured in the book are actress and model Persis Khambatta posing in a polka-dotted bikini before she became popular, a scowling Indira Gandhi in the company of Jackie Kennedy in 1964, and Kathak exponent Pandit Birju Maharaj in a stunning studio portrait from 1980. Pavan even taught Amitabh Bachchan dark room processing when the latter was recuperating from an accident on the sets of Coolie (1983) – such was the body of work the Mahattas built over the years.

Ahead of the Curve

The Mahattas have tried to constantly evolve with changing technology. By 1972, they already had semi-automatic printers. In 1984, the year Pavan joined the business, they got a film recorder which could transfer digital images back to analogue. “At the time it could take 3-10 days to get the prints done. People thought we were sending the films to Bombay for printing! Today we can print images in an hour but hardly anyone gets photos printed unless it’s when someone has died,” Pavan says.

The studio in the room adjacent to his office had a dark room attached which the family has since let go of. In recent years, they used to get films to develop only once or twice a week, mostly from photography students learning to shoot on film cameras – not substantial enough to keep the dark rooms running. “You can’t imagine the kind of equipment we just had to give away to the kabaddi. I tried to keep what I could, but most of it had to be sold off,” Pavan recalls pensively. At one time, 70 people worked at the Mahatta studio, doing everything from processing, printing, cutting to even framing the photographs. Today, there are only about 15 staff members, including the photographers’ assistants, computer operators and the accounts team.

In some ways, the family had anticipated the transformation of the market. Very early on, the Mahattas opened a Nokia priority store, even before mobile photography had taken off. While earlier, the studio was popular for matrimonial portraits, today its main revenue comes from shooting weddings across India and even abroad, something Pavan’s son, Arjun, has already forayed into.

Photographed by Kirti Narain for Homegrown

In the Age of Selfies

But even through the progress, there are some things that India’s premier photography family has unequivocally left behind. The tradition of hand-colouring black and white photographs, for example, could not arrive into the era of selfies. Pavan’s book documents several such hand-coloured images of shikaras on the Dal Lake, Mahatta family portraits and one even of Nehru, miraculously smiling in colour through a black and white photograph. No longer are such professional colourists patronised, nor are fabric-based printing papers, which could absorb the paint, in production.

A showcase full of vintage film cameras in Pavan’s office is a reminder of another time. All the cameras out of his collection can still be taken out and used if he manages to procure the films for them. Stacked somewhere among these cameras is the first one his grandfather gifted him as a boy – a Mamiya Bellow Film camera.

The Connaught Place the window behind his desk overlooks is different too. Pressures of rent and “harassment” from the Heritage Conservation Committee has compelled many old legacy shops to make way for new age eateries and apparel stores. As Pavan points out, there’s no reason for anyone to come to Connaught Place anymore, unless one is looking for something that is available nowhere else. Mahatta & Co doesn’t necessarily make it to that list anymore. “You do feel sad. Many more people used to walk in earlier, it used to be more interesting. But money-wise, this is better,” Pavan says optimistically, happy to keep the studio doors open.

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