The custodians of visual memory

Pavan Mehta traces the evolution of photography in India by chronicling the journey of Mahatta & Co, which his grandfather had set up in 1915

August 15, 2015 08:47 pm | Updated March 29, 2016 03:28 pm IST

Pavan Mahatta

Pavan Mahatta

It is not easy for a photo studio to survive in this digital era but Mahatta & Co. has.. This year Mahatta photo studio completes a century of existence – now run by the third and fourth generation of the family. To celebrate Mahatta & Co is launching “Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Photography in India 1915 -2015” on August 19, the World Photography Day. It’s written by Pavan Mehta, the elder son of Madan Mehta, who was largely responsible for turning the studio into an institution.

In 1915 Amar Nath Mehta first set up Mahatta & Co. in Srinagar. It thrived in Kashmir and undivided India. The British pronounced Mehta as Mahatta and to make it convenient for them to pronounce , he named it Mahatta & Co.

Post-Partition, Amar Nath shut his shops in Murree and Rawalpindi and came to Delhi where he opened his new store at M Block, Connaught Place. His son, Madan Mehta went to England to study photography in 1950s and came back to introduce colour photography in India. “First colour prints was done by us in 1954 and then in 1986, we introduced digital imaging. But this book isn’t just about what Mahatta has done. It’s about how photography has changed over the years, how these modern buildings of Delhi have changed,” says Pavan.

The journey of Mahatta studio forms a significant part of the journey photography has made in India. The 200-page book (published by Authors Upfront) isn’t a tome puffed up by photographic jargon but rare pictures and information giving insight into the past. “We know about the 1900s. So much is there on Raja Ravi Varma but what happened in the field between 1915 and 1947 isn’t really written about. I have tried to shed light on that period. We went through over a lakh photographs from which we shortlisted 35,000 images and from them we finally selected 250. It has several rare photos like Mahatma Gandhi in Kashmir, one year-old Dr.Karan Singh in the arms of his mother. The oldest photo dates back to 1918 in which a family is sitting together and the 11-year-old girl is dressed in a sari,” explains Pavan about the first ever book from Mahatta. There are photos of personalities like Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh, Kapil Dev, Raj Kapoor shot in their studios.

Young students of photography and historians, hopes Pavan, would derive much from the book. “We have talked about hand printing technique which was already there when Mahatta came into being. Then came colour printing which we introduced but at the same time we continued with hand printing till 1990. I also discuss the retouching of negatives, trends in portraiture. You know post-wedding shoot was a big thing. The couple would come dressed just as they were in their wedding. Now who takes pictures after the wedding,” says Pavan.

Weddings were integral to their portfolio and remain so. As digital photography affected their business, Mahatta got into wedding photography big time. “But I can predict printing is going to come back. We are losing history. You take a picture, upload it on Facebook but what will happen to all of them when Facebook won’t be there. I tell everyone coming to me to make one print at least,” says Pavan.

The book will be launched along with an exhibition by Dr.Karan Singh at Twin Art Gallery in IGNCA, Janpath on August 19)

Stellar position

“My architect father, Habib Rahman, was a keen photographer and all his film was developed there. Madan Mahatta, in particular, became close to all of us. He photographed my mother’s dance performance and my father’s architectural work. Madan was one of the great architectural photographers and I am happy I was able to curate a show of his photographs of Delhi’s great modern architecture before he passed away . He was a very gentle and elegant soul and helped anyone who came to the studio with technical advice. As a studio, Mahatta’s has a stellar position in India’s photo culture and history.” Ram Rahman

“I started as a professional photographer in 1980. I was young and perpetually broke. I would go to the lab to get my films processed and request Madan to tell his accountant that I would pay later. He would say “Inke account main likh dena”. To get my films processed early, I would again approach him and he would get the work done. He understood. The way he engaged with young photographers was amazing. He wasn’t just running the most professional lab but was also guiding us like a mentor. For many of us Mahatta wasn’t the main entrance but the staircase at the back which led us to Madan’s office.” Aditya Arya

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