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Madras on glass

In its heyday, Wiele and Klein Photographic Studio, apart from its popularity for its studio portraits, built up an enviable reputation for its collection of photographs, not only of Madras but also of major tourist centres in the country.


NEXT TO the new Madras Mahajana Sabha building at Round Tana is the G. Venkatapathi Naidu Building that has in recent times had a couple of facelifts. When so named in 1919, it was still more recognisable in its first restoration as an older building, home of the Wiele and Klein Photographic Studio, perhaps the biggest studio of the time in South India. In its heyday, apart from its popularity for its studio portraits, it built up an enviable reputation for its collection of photographs not only of Madras and the Presidency it was capital of, but also of major tourist centres in India like Mysore, Benares, Agra and Delhi. And all these were on glass plate negatives from which the firm made reproductions, ranging from postcards to large framed pictures to be hung in the homes of sahibs in India and at `Home'.

The firm was founded by an Englishman named Wiele, probably sometime in the late 1880s. Before long, he took as partner a Theodor Klein, who was born of German parents in Madras. The earliest record of the firm Wiele and Klein is in 1890 when there's mention of it being a prize-winner at the Madras Fine Arts Exhibition. At 11, Mount Road, the studio was on the ground floor and Klein and his wife Valeska, whom he married in England in 1909, lived on the first floor, tending the store. Wiele, it would appear, preferred to move to the Blue Mountains, where the partners set up studios in Ooty and Coonoor around 1900.

The Great War had Klein, the German, out of the frame for its duration, but once it was over, Wiele decided to return home and Klein bought him out. The first thing Klein did was to sell the Round Tana property to Venkatapathi Naidu - a descendant of the founder of the city, Beri Thimmappa, and an active figure in civic affairs - and move to smaller premises further up Mount Road, between the LIC tower block and VST Motors. There he employed a young fellow German, Michael Peyerl, to run the shop and in the 1920s took him on as a partner. It is as Klein and Peyerl that Madras, till not so long ago, knew the firm - but in a different context.

During World War II, both Klein and Peyerl were interned as German nationals and the business was run by the Custodian of Enemy Property. Klein died during internment and, after the War, Peyerl decided to sell the firm and return to Germany. The firm was bought by Vettath John who continued the studio, but gradually made Klein and Peyerl the blockmakers most sought after by the letterpress printers and advertising agencies of South India. The wane of letterpress industry and a fire in 1987 spelt the end of Klein and Peyerl - a name the Johns retained - and the shell of the building was used by John's son Basu as offices.

One of the mysteries that the German owners left for posterity was an enormous collection of large and small glass plate negatives of India that the firm had accumulated. Besides the pictures taken by Wiele and Klein with their cumbersome equipment that weighed several scores of pounds and which needed several porters to carry, there were also negatives by Peyerl and Klein's brother-in-law Erwin Drinneberg. Holidaying in India in 1929-30, with his wife Elizabeth, Drinneberg, Klein and Peyerl with their families travelled to several parts of India and took hundreds of photographs. Many of these photographs found their way to Germany and over 500 of them were gifted by Elizabeth Drinneberg, after her husband's death, to the J&E von Partheim Stiftung (Endowment) in Heidelberg. A few years ago, a few of these pictures were exhibited in Madras with little fanfare and less audience. Perhaps it's time the Max Muller Bhavan thought of a better publicised exhibition one of these days.

As for the rest of the collection... well, that's a story full of speculation...

As Englishman, visiting Coonoor in the 1980s, heard of a collection of pictures which a Miss Cooper, an ageing and penurious Anglo-India spinster, did not know what to do with. When he visited her, he found four huge custom-made teak boxes crammed with glass plate negatives. He told Harry Miller, perhaps the best known news photographer in the South in those days, about the collection and Miller sought the help of his friend, Eric Stracey, the then Inspector General of Police. Stracey had the collection picked up in Coonoor and brought to Madras in a police van. When Miller examined the collection, he found there were 1515 plates in all, ranging from 3 x 4 inch quarter plates to 52 large plates of size 10x12 inches. Of them, over 300 were of Madras, including 100 and more of a bit of our lost heritage, the palms of `Chepauk Park'.

Harry Miller nursed this collection like a baby and whenever use was made of any of the pictures, the proceeds were used to help make Miss Cooper's last years more comfortable. As Miller himself became older, he was not able to care for the collection as it ought to have been and he sold it to a five-man partnership, `Vintage Vignettes', which now tends it.

The intriguing part of the collection is that there is no provenance to it. All that Miss Cooper could offer was that she had worked for a German family and they had left the collection with her and never came back for it. Could it have been Klein or Peyerl? Stracey's attempts to trace their heirs proved fruitless. Many such plates in old collections have the names of the photographers etched in the plates. I've seen plates with names of contemporaries of Klein and company, like Willie Blake, A. Nicholas, Tripe, and Bourke on them - but this collection has no names, though several pictures in it have dates. They all also have numbers - which perhaps tally with a catalogue or index - but of either, no trace was ever found. And so here in Madras is a provenance-less collection of brilliant photographs of an India of the past of which the most we can say is that there is a good chance that the photography was the work of Wiele, Klein, Peyerl and Drinneberg. And if it was their work, they were indeed brilliant photographers - explaining why Wiele and Klein and then Klein and Peyerl were such popular studios in South India from the 1890s to the 1940s.

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