Surviving the onslaught of time, studio photographs of the late ’70s and ’80s capturing the human drama of small town life make up a remarkable book.

It was a liberating space where shackles of the society would be broken and fancies played out. A woman who otherwise in her village couldn’t even think of being in a public space without a dupatta, dresses up in a safari suit, fulfilling her desire to dress up like a man. Two sisters on the joyous occasion of Rakshabandhan pose with their beloved brother handing them a Rs.100 note, capturing the moment for posterity. Elsewhere, a man dejected and heartbroken goes all out to show his sadness by posing with what looks like a bottle of alcohol but is actually coloured water. He probably wouldn’t have that freedom to express himself in such a way anywhere else except Studio Suhag, where he would even be assisted by somebody.

Now only visited for passport photographs and stylised work, there was a time when studios were the only recourse for people to have the momentous occasions of their lives documented. Studio Suhag was one of them, located in Nagda, an industrial town which was a village before Grasim set up a viscose staple fibre manufacturing unit there. Set up by photographer Suresh Punjabi along with his brother Mahesh in the late ’70s the space was witness to several mundane and extraordinary moments. These 50,000 medium format negatives were safely stored in Suresh’s godown till a heavy downpour damaged the archive in 2008.

After Suresh told anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney — Suresh had known Pinney since the days of his PhD research on industrial workers in Nagda in 1982 — that he was going to throw away the negatives, Pinney along with his son set out to rescue his work done over decades. About 1,500 negatives were retrieved and the archive formed the basis of “Artisan Camera: Studio Photography from Central India” (Tara Books) and the exhibition “Studio Suhag” at Art Heritage, which concluded recently. The book launch and exhibition were part of the Delhi Photo Festival.

Pinney finds it not just a unique photographic work but also significant from the sociological point of view and the way these images record the history of a small town. “I think the dimension of performance in all these images would engage the post-modern audience,” says Pinney.

The use of props, dramatic background and lighting were other elements that made the negatives compelling for him. “But this ‘noise’ gets eliminated in a final print, but in a negative everything is there, the whole space of the studio and studio lights, which made it interesting,” he adds.

Though not able to remember the finer details, Suresh does recall that the way they wanted to shoot was decided by the customers. “For instance one woman just wanted to be shot with her pet goat, or two brothers who were addicted to radio came with their transistor. I just told them where to place it. For some of them the studio was the place they could become somebody they couldn’t be in their real lives, and for some it was how they could record a particular moment of their life which they could see and relive after many years. For some it had a different use, like the two Thakurs brandishing their guns. It was a show of strength,” says Suresh, who still runs the studio in Nagda.

By recording the complex sociology of the area, Pinney feels the images are invested with a sense of great diversity, capturing Adivasi labourers, a Muslim woman in her NCC uniform, a Christian bride and groom who have just got married, people with their gurus, profile photographs of unmarried men and women meant for matrimonial purpose, among others.

With just a fraction of the retrieved images included in the book and the exhibition, Pinney and Suresh are also contemplating working on the rest of the archive and how to engage with it. “The third stage of this work would involve making it a bigger archive and making it available online and accessible to a wider audience,” reveals Pinney.