Find out what makes G R Mani Studio, the oldest photo studio in Madurai, still tick

Forever frames: G R Mani Studio, whose history is entwined with the city’s, is the oldest photo studio in the region. What makes it tick? We meet the founding family to find out

A 100 years, four generations of shutterbugs, and still going strong. G R Mani Studio in Puthuthopu, Ponnagaram, has outlived several others from yesteryear.

“My father G Rajamani started this studio in 1920,” says R Mani Nathaniel, whose son M Israel Charles runs the studio at present. “Initially, it functioned from a small space on Town Hall road,” recalls the 87-year-old. He remembers his father photographing the first Bishop of Ramnad diocese, who was an Englishman. “My father was a household name as he was an artist too,” says Nathaniel, adding, “Only artists qualified to become photographers back then because it took artistic skills to enhance the frames and thrive in the field.”

Find out what makes G R Mani Studio, the oldest photo studio in Madurai, still tick

The studio is a landmark in the city. In fact, the Madurai Corporation renamed the erstwhile Annamalai Chetty Lane, where the original studio stood as G R Mani Studio Street in 1999. Today, it stands a few shops away on the same street.

Given the studio’s popularity, the family is planning to celebrate their completion of 100 years. “We hope to revive old memories,” says Charles, unwilling to reveal more.

Nathaniel says that photography was a risky profession to venture into in the early 20th Century. “People believed that their lifespan reduced if they were photographed,” he says. Also, only the wealthy could afford taking photographs. Nathaniel remembers some of his strange assignments where he had to click photographs of the dead.

“The deceased would be seated in an upright position in a chair a few hours before the funeral. It was the order of the day to take a photograph in that posture for remembrance,” he says. Later, the photographer would work on the photo, painting the face and sketching the eyes. The 2014 Tamil film Mundasupatti shows something to this effect.

Find out what makes G R Mani Studio, the oldest photo studio in Madurai, still tick

The first camera Rajamani used was a Madras Kotak with a tripod, which was manual and colloquially called the ‘full-size body’ then. “We used to buy film rolls and spare parts from the now defunct The Photo Bharat Emporium in The American college complex. We also went to the Photo Trade Centre in Madras. We had our own red light room or dark room for developing the photos,” explains Nathaniel, whose favourite camera remains the Canon Mark 4.

Photography, back then, was time-consuming and laborious. “We used hydrochloric acid, bromide paper, sulphide and benzoin tincture for processing photo films. It took nearly a fortnight to finish one roll,” he recalls.

Until the digital age dawned, they took proof copies of the photos in a single bromide sheet and the customer picked the ones he wanted developed. “Also, we used a pencil to do shadow correction in the final frame. Vintage Panama blades were used to scrape off the edges and we would mount the photo in a presser. Sometimes, to complete orders on time, one of us would stand on the reversed frame to apply pressure on the film for drying and straightening it,” recalls Nathaniel, adding, “We used honey wax along with spirit and zinc powder to paste photos on the frame. The cost of passport size photos was ₹2 for three copies and a full-size photo costed ₹3.”

Charles says theirs was the first studio in the city to introduce colour photographs in 1985 and they went fully digital by 2003. “Initially, I struggled to learn Adobe Photoshop, that has altered the world of photography to unprecedented levels,” he says. During Indira Gandhi’s visit to Madurai in 1979, his father was appointed to click her photographs. And his grandfather was the photographer during Mahatma Gandhi’s first visit to Madurai in 1919! Nathaniel also feels proud about photographing the late M G Ramachandran, actor and former Tamil Nadu CM, when he came to Madurai for his election campaign in 1972.

Models of some of the precious old cameras, still in working condition, have been preserved by the family. Charles’s son, I Joshua Delight, is now readying himself to take on the family baton. Trained in photography from childhood, he is familiar with Photoshop and other modern techniques.

‘Poo Thaithal’, meaning ‘Stitching of flowers’ on the hair, was a popular ritual back then. Nathaniel recalls the many photo sessions with young girls who wore an elaborate arrangement of flowers on their braid. “The classic pose was to stand with her back to the mirror so that her braid was captured in full glory,” he smiles.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 2:52:08 AM |

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