Inside India Society

A thousand words from Jaipur

Surendra Kumar, the proud owner of a vintage Zeiss.

Surendra Kumar, the proud owner of a vintage Zeiss.   | Photo Credit: Rishabh Kochhar

Perched precariously on a much-bandaged tripod made of sticks is an 1846 Carl Zeiss, possibly the only one in India

Window-shopping in Jaipur’s bustling Johari Bazaar, somewhere between Hawa Mahal and a few sword shops in the once-pink now-brownish-red neighbourhood, I almost don’t notice the middle-aged man standing with a peculiar apparatus balanced precariously on three frail and bandaged wooden sticks. On second look, it turns out to be an antique camera.

Being a shutterbug myself, I steal a closer look and discover that it is a Zeiss. Made by the legendary German camera-maker Carl Zeiss, the lens dates back to 1846. It is, of course, a treasure. What was it doing on a Jaipur street?

It turns out Surendra Kumar, the unremarkable owner of it, took over the family photography business many moons ago, and the cameras were handed down over generations till they reached him. He understandably worships the heirloom. It is only one of three such cameras in the world and perhaps the only one in India. Kumar’s bragging rights include another and newer Carl Zeiss from the last century and a Leica from the 19th century.

He happily agrees when I ask for our portraits to be taken on the vintage camera, making us strike several poses before finally settling on one that he claims will make our eyes pop out. Moving his hand back and forth inside the black box that is the camera, Kumar makes a few fussy adjustments before deciding it is all just right, and then finally begins the shoot.

Enjoying the antique

From his makeshift roadside studio, Kumar has been making such portraits of tourists and city regulars for 40 years now. Rising at the crack of dawn, he reaches Johari Bazaar at 7 each morning and stays there till 6 in the evening. He candidly admits that he mostly caters to foreign tourists because nobody else seems to appreciate his antique camera as much.

Once the picture is clicked, Kumar begins to explain the physics of the contraption: how the camera is initially used to create a negative of the portrait, which is then developed in an indigenous preparation of silver nitrate, before coming up with the final photograph. I am captivated by the sheer simplicity with which the black box has captured our faces in different shades of noir et blanc.

Kumar shows me a clutch of photographs he has taken of a Russian couple who have been visiting his studio every year for the past 20 years.

Now, there’s a documentary in Ukraine that features his camera, he says proudly. Old newspaper clippings show his older brother, his father and grandfather handling the camera. Kumar then produces a photograph with Akshay Kumar from his movie Bhool Bhoolaiya that showcases the antique.

However, his annual highlight is a guest talk he gives to a congregation of photographers, one to which people from all over the world fly in to hear Kumar explain how the vintage Zeiss works.

Kumar indulges me when I ask him to photograph me with my own camera as I pretend to use his.

Before leaving, I pay him a steep amount for the photographs, but I realise that I have paid not only for the image but for a rare moment that I was able to experience and capture.

A true Punjabi at heart, the writer can cross the seven seas for some good dal makhani and butter chicken.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:21:58 PM |

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