Event Art

This exhibition in Hyderabad turns its gaze on Kashmir from the 1920s


Kashmir   | Photo Credit: By arrangement


Life in the Valley: The first of a series of exhibitions in Hyderabad turns its gaze on Kashmir from the 1920s to the 1960s, dipping into photography archives of Mahatta & Co

A photograph on display at Kalakriti art gallery shows Kashmir’s first photo studio run by an Indian, Mahatta & Co, in 1915. It was then called Mahatta Art Studio and was set up by Amar Nath Mehta on a houseboat on river Jhelum. The story goes that the British used to address Mehta as Mahatta and hence the name. Amar Nath moved to Delhi to set up another studio in 1948 and his younger brother Ram Chand Mehta or R C Mehta, took over the Srinagar operations. The Mehtas have documented the Valley, its people and pristine landscapes for over a century.

R C Mehta

R C Mehta   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

‘R C Mehta - exploring the familiar and the iconic’ is the first of the three exhibitions in Hyderabad to mark the Krishnakriti Festival of Arts and Culture 2020, the 17th edition of the festival. This year’s festival will unfold from January to March, presenting three exhibitions on Kashmir with the theme ‘Makers and Meanings’, and the collective series is titled ‘Deconstructing Paradise: Images and Imaginations of Kashmir’.

Photo call
  • ‘R C Mehta - exploring the familiar and the iconic’ is on view at Kalakriti art gallery, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, till January 26.
  • Part two of the exhibition, tentatively scheduled for February, will go back in time to explore Kashmir before the invention of photography, from the 18th century, with the help of maps, lithographs and paintings.
  • The third part of the exhibition, in March, will explore life, arts and culture in contemporary Kashmir, through colour photography and other visual narratives.

The photographs now on view at Kalakriti are from the 1930s to the 1960s, from the archives of Mahatta & Co.

The studio thrived on portraiture from the 1920s to mid 1930s. Hemant Mehta, the grandson of R C Mehta, has grown up listening to stories of how his forefathers worked around constraints. When the studio was on a houseboat in the 1910s, ingenuity made photography possible when electricity was a luxury: “Reflectors were fitted like flaps to the windows of the houseboat. When sun rays fell on Jhelum waters, these reflectors directed the sunlight into the houseboat and portraits were shot. Once the full-fledged studio was established, high wattage bulbs were used.”

The clarity and detailing in the photographs of the 1920s and 1930s speak of the mastery of technique. If the archives are picture perfect, Hemant credits it partly to the dry, non-humid weather conditions in Srinagar.

Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

In the attic of the Srinagar studio, Hemant chanced upon old, bulky cameras that weighed around 50 kilograms, with iron stands, and used glass plate negatives.

This was before the advent of film photography. These heavy cameras were not portable and hence, studio portraiture was the mainstay.

Mahatta Arts Studio on a houseboat in 1915

Mahatta Arts Studio on a houseboat in 1915   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

In pre-Independent India, Kashmir was a holiday destination for well-heeled Indians, the British and European travellers, many of whom stepped into Mahatta & Co for portraits.

One of the many studio portraits

One of the many studio portraits   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

In the mid 1930s, as cameras became smaller, the Mehtas carried them out of the studio and captured Kashmir’s landmarks and people. There are candid moments of women in agriculture, houseboats pulling logs on the Jhelum, breathtaking visuals of Nanga Parbhat, Khilanmarg, Fateh Kadal, Shalimar Bagh and the backwaters of Dal lake.

The slopes of Gulmarg

The slopes of Gulmarg   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

The studio made postcards and slides of these landscape images and these became collectibles for the tourists. Visuals of chinar trees in winter in 1945, and a view of the ski routes on the slopes of Gulmarg in the mid 1940s are among the stunning captures.

Abeer Gupta of Krishnakriti Foundation remarks that some of the visuals shot by the studio were referred to by Hindi film units who wanted to shoot in picturesque locales in the Valley.

The studio also turned its gaze on arts and crafts — carpet manufacturing and chain stitched rugs in the 1960s, for instance. They also documented Maharaja Hari Singh, Karan Singh, Maharani Tara Devi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

This exhibition in Hyderabad turns its gaze on Kashmir from the 1920s

The ongoing exhibition displays images of Kashmir till the 1960s, before colour photography came into practice. “R C Mehta witnessed life in Kashmir as a local, was a practitioner of photography and a studio owner from the 1920s to the 80s,” says Abeer.

Jawaharlal Nehru in Kashmir

Jawaharlal Nehru in Kashmir  

The studio also stood witness to the struggles in the Valley over the decades. “During World War II, film rolls were rationed. When people would queue up outside the studio, film rolls were directly loaded into their cameras to prevent black market selling,” says Hemant.

In the last four months following the abrogation of Article 370, nothing much has happened. Each time the region witnessed an unrest, the studio would barely function and wait in hope of better times.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 7:37:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/at-the-krishnakriti-festival-in-hyderabad-photography-archives-of-mahatta-co-showcase-kashmir-from-the-1920s-to-the-1960s/article30513165.ece

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