Seeped in sepia: Deep blacks, striking shadows define Jethalal’s photos of Bollywood’s yesteryear stars

Sitare Zameen Par, an ongoing exhibition at Noida’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, shows his quintessential photography techniques, like using cigarette smoke and lamp soot to create dreamy backgrounds

March 17, 2023 07:39 pm | Updated 07:39 pm IST

Raj Kapoor Kapur and Nargis Dutt

Raj Kapoor Kapur and Nargis Dutt | Photo Credit: Jethalal H. Thakker

A striking portrait of Raj Kapoor and Nargis Dutt greets you at the entrance wall, two life-size photos of Madhuri Dixit smile at you from far end; a series of pictures with familiar faces draw you inside as soft melodies of yore playing on a radio set transport you to an era gone by.

Sitaare Zameen Par, the ongoing exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Noida, brings to life the enigmatic Bollywood stars of the yesteryear through elegant black-and-white portraits shot by legendary photographer Jethalal H. Thakker. “Thakker, a partition refugee, set up India Photo Studio in 1948, in a spacious art-deco apartment in Dadar (Mumbai),” informs Roobina Karode, director and chief curator of KNMA. A master of compositions in black and white and sepia tones, Jethalal, adds Roobina, created magic with his silver gelatine prints, a technology that he had mastered. He created images with deep blacks, striking shadows, and organic textures which eventually became his style. About 120 of which are on display at the exhibition..

Dev Anand

Dev Anand | Photo Credit: Jethalal H. Thakker

In a new light

The exhibition presents legendary actors of the 50s and 60s in avatars we may have never seen them in. A photograph of Meena Kumari, who was otherwise perceived as quiet, serious, and guarded, shows her as a young woman in a sensous costume with glistening eyes, and a playful expression. A picture of actor Raaj Kumar, known for his tough characters, presents him as a gentle lover in a warm embrace with co-star Nimmi (Nawab Bano); another one, of Mithun Chakraborty, known for his versatility and confidence, portrays an innocent young man who had just landed in Mumbai looking for work. “Mithun got his first portfolio shot by Thakker on the basis of which he got admitted to FTII, Pune. The rest, as we know, is history,” says Roobina. “In one sense,” she adds, “all these images showcase the faith the stars entrusted in the photographer — in portraying the essence of an emotion as embedded in a pose.”

The emotions are palpable in all pictures and one cannot but take one’s eyes off the wall that displays nine portraits of the most popular heroines of the time — Sadhana, Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, and Rajashree to name a few — each telling her own story. Another wall, dedicated entirely to Nargis (Jethalal was especially close to the Dutts), portrays her versatility and vivaciousness. The blow-ups of Madhuri Dixit, the only contemporary face here, blend in seamlessly with those of her seniors — thanks to similar lighting, costumes, and make-up. The use of lighting, one of Jethalal’s trademark, is evident in every portrait with shadows standing out as much as the light.

Beyond the stars

Jethalal’s work, however, was not confined to superstars alone. We see impressive portraits of character artistes, directors, villains, music directors and singers. An entire section showcases stills from larger-than-life film sets, another replicates Jethalal’s studio in Mumbai (now run by his son Vimal Thakker), and a short documentary that plays on a headphone-enabled screen, gives a deep insight into the world of the artiste’s photography.

Raaj Kumar and Rehana

Raaj Kumar and Rehana | Photo Credit: Jethalal H. Thakker

“It should also be noted that the real focus of the exhibition is not these stars as such, but the silent labour and patient investment of Jethalal behind all stardom and glamour,” highlights Roobina. The exhibition brings out this facet with elaborate notes on his techniques that highlights how he used cigarette smoke and lamp soot to create dreamy backgrounds and replaced flash with candles and natural light. Almost all pictures were taken from a single negative, another technique he mastered. The stars, it is said, waited patiently, while he set the perfect shot, sometimes even for hours.This effort is visible in each picture — be it the intense portraits of villains like Jeevan, Pran, and Anwar Hussain or the life-like picture of Kishore Kumar among musicians like Naushad, Mukesh and Talat Mahmood, and not to forget the show-stopping portrait of Salim Khan as a dapper young man, far removed from his image of a legendary screenwriter today.

For a varied audience

The images straddle between the sensibilities of modernist aspirations while retaining the inherent nuances of a populist visual medium, like cinema. There are multiple pictures of actors from different generations on display — from Bharat Bhushan and Dev Anand to Shashi Kapoor and Meena Kumari.


Suraiya | Photo Credit: Jethalal H. Thakker

This diversity and variety of subjects fascinate multiple generations of audiences too — from those who have seen the actors in their prime to those who are discovering them only now. “The older generation has embraced the exhibition and the younger generation is looking at these photographs not just as historical objects but as portraits of glorious personalities,” says Roobina. “We are hoping that this show will familiarise the young with the persona of these stars and inspire them to explore the cinema of the 1950s and 1960s,” she concludes.

Sitare Zameen Par is on display at Kiran Nadar Museum of Arts, in Noida until April 30.

A sneak peak into the country’s biggest events and festivals before they happen. So, you want to travel more? Watch this space.

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