Heavy red curtains hang at the entrance of the Exhibition Hall of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. From behind them, emanate the faint sounds of a film in progress. As you part the curtains and enter, you can’t help but feel as if you’re entering a cinema theatre of the yore.
Once inside, that feeling of having entered the past remains. The stark white walls on either side are mounted with rows upon rows of photographs, posters and pamphlets of some of the greatest films and people of Indian cinema. This is all a part of an ongoing exhibition called A Story Called Cinema: The BD Garga Archives, which has been put together as a tribute to the filmmaker and film historian Bhagwan Das Garga. After beginning his career as an apprentice to V Shantaram, Garga went on to make documentary films and write on Indian cinema. A founding member of the National Film Archive of India, Garga, who died in 2011, is best known as a chronicler of India’s rich cinematic heritage.
“This is a visual thesis of Indian cinema, created from his collections,” says Dr Gautam Chatterjee, controller of the media centre and the brain behind this exhibition. Enthusiastically offering to take you on a tour of the exhibition, he says, “The different sections here are arranged chronologically, from black and white cinema to colour, from the era of silent films to the talkies.”
He points to a particularly interesting photo in the first section – of a man sitting on a chair, wearing a string of pearls over a robe, with his head floating high in the air and a black patch where his head should’ve been. “This is the only surviving print from the silent film Krishna Janma, dated 1918,” he says. “Can you imagine that they could create trick photography such a long time ago?”
Over the next 30 minutes, Dr Chatterjee points out many such marvels and narrates little anecdotes about them that only add to the wonder. There’s a photo of the Watson Hotel in Bombay with an announcement for the screening of a film by the Lumiere brothers. As it happens, that was the first time ever, on July 7 1896, that a film was screened in India.
Then there are many behind-the-scene photographs of the greats of Indian cinema at work, from Dada Saheb Phalke to Satyajit Ray and more. An entire wall is dedicated to hand-painted posters of films, arranged alphabetically. There are iconic costumes, such as that of the tawaif in Umrao Jaan, that BD Garga had recreated. In the backroom are cases-full of original lobby-cards, books and journals from his collections.
But perhaps the most interesting exhibit is that of a life-size tent erected in the middle of a room, with a couple of benches inside, and a big screen playing what looks like a really old film. Outside the tent, an equally old advertisement hangs, announcing that the film playing inside is Raja Harishchandra – the Phalke-directed silent classic. “This is our recreation of the Tamboo Talkies, the moving theatres of the past that was the only way for people in far-flung towns and villages to experience cinema,” Dr Chatterjee says. “The reel for Raja Harishchandra was 7000 feet long. We now have parts of it, which we’re showing here. Come, sit down and experience it.” Needless to say, it was an experience unlike any other.
Where: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
When: February 10-23
Contact: 011 2338 3895