Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The photographer of famous persons

A chance visit brought me to the works of a photographer from Delhi, who had clicked pictures of the rich, the powerful and the famous persons passing through the Indian capital during 1950s and 1960s. These were the works of Mr. Madan Mahatta (Mehta). He died earlier this year, but I am really glad that I could see his works and to know about him.

Madan Mahatta photographers, Delhi, India

A chance visit

I was in Connaught Place in Delhi and went to an Airtel shop to get a new SIM card.

"You need two pictures for the SIM card and you can go to the photography shop across the road for it", the Airtel guy told me.

I saw the board of "Photographers Mahatta" and walked in. The shop seemed full of cameras, tripods and other things necessary for photography, including a whole wall lined up with antique cameras.

"Take these stairs and go up", a guy guided me.

Upstairs had a photographer's studio with lights and reflectors. But there was no one there. While I waited, I looked around and saw a wall with some old black and white pictures, some of them hand-painted. Going closer, I found that some of them were of well known persons - India's first president Dr Rajendra Prasad, Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, Everest climber Tenzing Norgay ..

Madan Mahatta photographers, Delhi, India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Soon a guy arrived and asked me to sit down on a stool. While he adjusted the lights, I asked him, "Who took those pictures?"

"It was Mr. Madan Mahatta, the owner of this shop. It is the oldest shop of photography in Delhi and next year we are celebrating our 100th anniversary", he told me proudly.

Madan Mahatta photographers, Delhi, India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Madan Mahatta, the photographer

Afterwards I talked to Pavan Mahatta, son of Mr. Madan Mahatta. He explained that their family was from Srinagar in Kashmir. Photography was initiated by their grandfather in Dalhousie in 1915, when he was 17 years old.

Madan opened his photography shop in M block of Connaught Place in 1947. He went to study photography at Gilford in England and after his return in 1954, set up the first colour lab for photographers in India.

Pavan showed me a book that has been printed to mark the 100 years of photography by the Mahattas that has many examples of his father's works. "Queen Elisabeth of England, Jacqueline Kennedy, anyone who was famous and important, who visited Delhi, was photographed by my father in those days", he explained.

Pavan, son of Madan Mahatta photographers, Delhi, India - images by Sunil Deepak, 2014

His image archives have been partially digitalized and some of these images can also be seen on the Mahatta website.

Madan Mahatta in the Indian press

Madan Mahatta was "rediscovered" by Ram Rahman a couple of years ago, who had curated an exhibition of his architectural pictures in 2012. I found different articles about this exhibition, that give more information about Mr. Mahatta:
  "Mr. Mahatta, the owner of the famous Mahatta Studios in Connaught Place, is palpably excited about the public display of his works. He shares the experiences he accumulated while capturing through his viewfinder angles and avenues of many a concrete landmark. Though only his architectural pursuits are going to be on display, the seasoned photographer is as animated about the moments of history that he lived through, capturing their images in his camera for posterity. He recalls how he climbed on top of India Gate to shoot Jawaharlal Nehru's funeral procession in 1964, and when he was invited to Bhutan to photograph the coronation ceremony of the king.... Although he has been using colour in photography since the very start of his career, it is black-and-white that he finds more fascinating to work with. “Black-and-White photography is the translation of colour using light and doing that needs a lot of skill.” And this is one of the many skills Mr. Mahatta displays." (in The Hindu)
"Mahatta’s photographs cover the important period of Nehruvian high modernism, a record of the creation of the new Delhi and the urban monuments of the new nation, most of them commissioned by Nehru himself. Coming from a family which owned the biggest and most reputed photo studios in North India, Mahatta worked closely with two generations of India’s best known modern architects including Charles Correa, Habib Rahman, Jasbir Sawhney, J.K. Chowdhury, Joseph Allen Stein, Achyut Kanvinde, Ajoy Choudhury, Kuldip Singh, Raj Rewal, Ram Sharma, Ranjit Sabhiki and designers Mini Boga and Riten Mozumdar." (article by Phantom Lady on "Take on Art" blog)
"A mini museum in itself, their store in Connaught Place is worth a visit. From their collection of old cameras, like the Kodak Autographic Vest Pocket Camera belonging to A N Mehta from 1912 and something called ‘Camera Gun’ made by Fairchild Camera and Instrument Corp. New York, which was used during World War II to click images from fighter jets to the D800e Nikon Arjun uses currently, this store is a must visit on every photography enthusiasts list." (on the Family history of the Mahattas by Tanya Gupta on "Know your city")

Madan Mahatta died on 6 March 2014 in Delhi.


I had seen some of the works of well known photographer Sunil Jinah, especially some his iconic images of Mahatma Gandhi and of the tribals from different parts of India. But I hardly knew about any other significant photographers from the pre and early years of post independent India. I am glad that this chance visit introduced me to the works of Mr. Madan Mahatta.

Though his architectural images have been exhibited, perhaps his other images also hide treasures that can be appreciated by art lovers and historians.

On the other hand, it is remarkable that the Mahatta Photographers shop continues to be still active. Apart from its wonderful collection of vintage cameras that have made the history of photography, today it sells equipment from various brands like Nikon, Cannon, Sony, etc. and Pavan's son Arjun continues the legacy that had started in Dalhousie in 1915. If you like photography and are near M block in Connaught Place, find time to go and visit the Mahatta shop!

(The image of Mr. Madan Mahatta used in this post is from LiveMint)


Sunday, 6 July 2014

Exploring Indian love lives

Ira Trivedi's book "India in Love" is about marriage and sexuality in contemporary India. Based on a sociological research, it focuses mainly on the enormous changes occurring in urban middle class India. And, it makes for an interesting read. This post is about Trivedi's book and also presents a selection of my pictures from different parts of the world on the theme of love and sexuality.

Book cover India in Love by Ira Trivedi


Sexuality is a taboo area in India, though in recent times, some of the walls surrounding it have been breached, giving a glimpse of the different facets.

The discussions around sexuality are often linked to debates about traditions versus modernity, as well as to ideas of obscenity and pornography. Often they remain limited to innuendos and anecdotes that make for prurient reading without really helping in an understanding of the issues. Ira Trivedi's book "India in Love - Marriage and sexuality in the 21st century" (Aleph books, New Delhi, 2014) goes deeper for a more nuanced understanding of the issues.

India in Love

The book is divided into two parts - part 1 dealing with "sex and sexuality" and part 2 dealing with "love and marriage".

The first, "Sex and sexuality", part touches on different areas - the impact of last 2 decades on people's ideas about sex and sexuality; impact of access to pornography and the space occupied by porn stars in popular imagination; the coming out of the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual and intersexual) groups; evolution of the prostitution; and the dark side of sexuality, including rape, violence and the impact of decreasing female ratios.

The second part, "Love and marriage"  deals with - increasing role of love in people's decision making about marriages; the old and the new matchmakers and their changing roles in arranged marriages; the commercialization of weddings; increasing divorces and separations; and, couples experimenting with live-in relationships and open marriages.


At places, Ira makes sweeping and superficial generalizations, but on the whole, the book presents stories and research findings in ways that illustrate the complexity of the issues. India is a continent with a huge population and thus most discourses about India usually lead to the following two conclusions:

(1) If something is true, its exact opposite will also be true - thus if you find examples of big changes, you also find examples of societies and persons steeped in traditions that refuse any change. The situation is also dynamic, thus the same persons may have different opinions at different points in their lives and what seems to be the truth of a specific group today, may be very different tomorrow.

(2) The diverse groups in India - rich, middle class and poor; big cities, small cities and villages; men, women and the other genders; persons of different religions, etc. - all have different aspirations and velocities of change. None of the groups are monoliths with common shared positions, rather each group shows a variety of positions along a spectrum ranging from the most radical to the most conservative.

Ira's book also respects these two conclusions. Book's language varies from academic and clinical ("she did fellatio", "he did not like doing cunnilingus") to more immediate and direct ("squeezing their breasts and groping their crotches").

While the book talks about the changing ideas and practices about sex, love and marriage in India, it also touches on the frustrations and dilemmas about the traditions among the immigrants from rural areas and small cities who can witness the changing norms but are mostly excluded from them.

It does not shy away from going deeper into complicated areas (".. there have been many positive influences such as education and health care but the missionaries tried to impose a certain way of life that wasn't original Khasi way of life. Our tribal culture is intrinsically open and non judgemental. Christianity is all about judgement and sin...").

Book's conclusions and their implications

In her conclusions, Ira writes:
"The love revolution will lead to the breakdown of the traditional arranged marriage. This is significant, because it also means the breakdown of joint family, of caste and community identity, and as divorce rates skyrocket, perhaps also of marriage itself. The switch from arranged to love marriage will be a slow, gradual one, but it is happening nonetheless, particularly in urban India. The India of ten years ago was substantially different from the India of today, and the India a decade from now will continue on the path we have paved.
The sex revolution does not just concern the physical act of sex. It is about changing laws, about loosening censors, and about more sexual liberty. It is about seeing women choosing to wear what they want and about accepting gays in our communities. It is about the burgeoning prostitution industry and pornography. It is about escaping hypocrisy and realizing we are making change happen. Above all, it is about exposing an entire generation to a heavily sexualized culture which is seeping into their lives."
I believe that in India we need many more such discussions and researches to understand the social changes and their impacts related to notions of love, marriage and sex. Trivedi's book is a useful addition to those discussions.

The book remains superficial about the increasing anxiety of patriarchal society and especially of men, linked to these changes. However, results of these anxieties are increasingly dominating the news in India. Different "news-making" events over the past decade - the attempt of Maharashtrian government to ban dance bars, the recent worries expressed by the health minister Dr Harsh Wardhan about sex education in schools, the comments by different bodies including khap panchayats and political leaders about appropriateness of women's clothes - are some of the reactions caused by these anxieties. This area needs much more understanding and research.

Another problem is that most discussions on sex and sexuality remain elitist, confined to English language and exclude a large number of persons who do not speak English in India, who have a significant interest in this area but do not have access to systematic and accessible information on the theme.

Images on love & intimacy from around the world

To accompany this post, I decided to search my picture archives for images related to the theme of love, togetherness and intimacy. Here are some of them from around the world - from Belgium, Brazil, Czech republic, Ecuador, India, Italy, Switzerland and Thailand.

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

Images on love & intimacy from around the world by Sunil Deepak, 2014

I think that feelings of love, close friendships, and intimacy are perhaps the most important factors determining the quality of our lives. Living our sexualities in an open and fulfilling manner is equally important for all of us. However, societies' norms and expectations influence us and make us feel inadequate or wrong in expressing our desires about love, intimacy and sex. Sometimes, we ourselves do not understand our own desires.

Ira's book can helps you in understanding some of those issues. So read the book and think about yourself and what you wish from your lives, your companions, friends and families. Best of luck!


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