C. Sekar's collection of about 4,500 cameras comes in different shapes, sizes, colours and brands
If a picture's worth a thousand words, C. Sekar's got a few million potential epics at his home in Triplicane. “About 4,500 cameras,” he confirms with modesty, the owner of possibly the largest such collection in the world. And, these nuggets from history vie with each other valiantly for space in his home, the Camera House.
All available space above, below, beside, adjacent to and within everything has been taken over by cameras — of every shape, size, colour and nationality. The human occupants, under serious threat of expatriation, have retreated unprotestingly into the nether regions of the house.
There's a 160-year-old camera, half-the-size of the room. There are wooden cameras the size of suitcases. There's a German camera with 100 feet of film, which once took photographs of Mahatma Gandhi. There's a 16-mm movie camera that still has the footage of the 1962 Indo-Chinese war. There's one that can go 50 feet underwater. And, more than 50 spy cameras, and some exclusively for fingerprints.
“I've kept not only the cameras, but all the accessories — films, lenses, flashes and more,” says Sekar. “Which means, even if you bring a 90-year-old camera to me, chances are I'll still have the parts.”
It was more than 30 years ago that Sekar — after having moved to Madras to do his diploma in Electronics — discovered that there were few places to get a camera repaired in the city. He learnt the aesthetics and the science of cameras through practice; no one taught him how. He then went door to door, telling people of his services. “But, I had no patrons, which meant I was laughed away almost everywhere.”
But, he kept at it. And within a year, Sekar's name was illustrious. “He's a wizard! He can bring any camera to life,” laughs Vijayamurthi S., freelance photographer and member of the Madras Photographic Society, who had joined us. “He was the only one who could repair the Nikon D1X, one month after it'd had released in the country. And, he did it in half-an-hour.” Sekar grins, a little embarrassed.
Sekar travelled around the country, procuring cameras from anyone who was selling. That includes writer and naturalist Harry Miller's camera, L.V. Prasad's 16-mm movie camera, and MGR's Hasselblade and Gruernica. “MGR had given them to his personal photographer Nagaraja Rao, whom I badgered for 10 years for the cameras. He refused every single time. One week after his death, I saw in the papers that they were for sale.”
Till 2001, no one knew about his collection — not even his wife. But, since then, Sekar has held five exhibitions in the city, each time meeting all the expenses on his own; something he cannot afford anymore.
As we talk, Sekar disappears behind a wall of carefully-wrapped cameras, and emerges with something the size of a small television. It's a 90-year-old hand-held movie camera, a Paillard Bolex. “There are three different lenses, for the close, mid and long ranges.” He hands me the antique. First, I must figure out which one of the six orifices is the viewfinder. Then, I have to position the camera at waist-level, and look through a tiny bulge of thick glass; the image is blurred, fuzzy and small. “It is very hard,” he says, just as I wonder if I'm doing something monumentally wrong. “To think they used to do wildlife photography with things such as these!” says Vijayamurthi.
While he's remained largely unknown in India, people from all over the world come looking for the man and his house of lenses. “Once, early in the morning,” he remembers, “50 Germans showed up at my door.” Several times a week, students visit, some asking for help, some just wanting to take a look. “I'm ready to help. I take nothing.”
Three decades into his work, he's still adding to his trove. Occasionally, someone gives it away — such as the 80-year-old couple that navigated the steep steps to his second floor-house, to hand over a camera.
All Sekar wants is to make his collection a museum, and is hoping for help. “The people who used these cameras are gone, but I'd like to keep their memories alive. I'm aware that what I have is a valuable thing — and, it can educate so many.”
You can reach C. Sekar at Camera House, No. 242, Second Floor, Pycroft's Road or 94444-64967.