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The Indian wedding photograph, then and now

The Indian wedding photo has changed dramatically. Shy brides and impassive grooms have all but vanished. In their place are beaming posers oblivious to what has become a daily accessory: the camera.

long reads Updated: Apr 26, 2017 10:30 IST
Aparna Alluri
This is what a wedding portrait looks like in 2016.  A newly married couple en route to the reception venue in downtown Philadelphia. “We wanted her to lead,” says the photographer, Shivali Chopra. “Why should he lead always?”
This is what a wedding portrait looks like in 2016. A newly married couple en route to the reception venue in downtown Philadelphia. “We wanted her to lead,” says the photographer, Shivali Chopra. “Why should he lead always?” (Courtesy: Stories by Joseph Radhik)

On an overcast evening in March, a girl married a boy. It was a big fat wedding in one of Delhi’s sprawling “farmhouses.” There was music, dance, booze, family, friends and a lot of photographers. Two teams, in fact. One team alone had six of them.

Two of them — Jameer and Allen, in their 20s and members of the wedding photography firm, Stories by Joseph Radhik — waited outside the bride’s bedroom on the first floor of the swanky marble-and-glass bungalow. The other photo team was shooting portraits of the bride. It was their turn next. Where should they shoot?

The giant sculpted horse on the landing caught Allen’s eye. Perhaps she could pose next to it? They had already used the ground floor for portraits on the day of the Mehendi. Were they running out of places?

When the bride finally emerged from portrait shoot#1, sparkling in red, peach and diamonds, they decided to go downstairs. Shutters went off as she walked down the stairs. Someone called out her name. She looked up smiling. Click!

Madan Mahatta, one of India’s first professional photographers and his wife, Usha, in their wedding portrait from 1958 — a stylised shot of gentle smiles and eyes that didn’t quite meet the camera. (Courtesy: Mahatta Archives)

The camera is everywhere

There was a time when Delhi’s best-known photographers wouldn’t deign to visit someone’s house to shoot portraits, bridal or otherwise. If you wanted a portrait shot by them, you had to head to the studio, declares Ashok Dilwali, an acclaimed landscape photographer and owner of Kinsey Brothers, one of Delhi’s iconic photo studios. Now in his 70s, he’s surprised (and slightly irritated) that wedding photographers are so coveted.

But the wedding photograph is no longer just a photograph. It’s an intimate chronicle of the loud, colourful Indian wedding: from the poignant to the embarrassing, from the ephemeral to the staged. The proliferation of the camera has turned stiff, dazed, even indifferent newly-weds into born posers who don’t hesitate to drape themselves over each other. This is the work of a decade; not 70 or 25 years. Technology, not time, has been the catalyst: from Pinterest (the best place to “mood-board” says one photographer) to Instagram (for portfolios) to Facebook (for sharing the results).

Even 20 years ago, Dilwali says, wedding photographers weren’t a brand unto themselves. The men he dispatched to weddings also shot parties or family portraits. Dilwali only shot portraits on request. Until he found his “real love” in Himalayan landscapes. “I don’t have to ask mountains, please smile,” he grumbles. “I did those foolish things for 40 years.”

But no one needs to be asked to smile for the camera anymore. So much so that Pavan Mahatta, a professional photographer, believes people are “more conscious” now than ever before. He should know. As the owner of Mahatta & Co., one of India’s oldest and best-known photo studios, he owns a collection of family and wedding photographs going as far back as the 1940s. People are more comfortable with the camera now, he agrees, but they are also always prepared for it.

In just one generation, stiff, camera-shy newly-weds have been replaced by affectionate, even intimate couples who are either oblivious to the lens or comfortable enough to put on a show for it. (Courtesy: Clockwise from left — The Wedding Story, Mahatta Archives and Stories by Joseph Radhik )

Cameras, after all, are a daily accessory now; and everyday moments (and meals) are already scattered across phones, laptops and the cloud. That’s why weddings need special effort. Instagrammed life has turned them into an opportunity for dramatic, stylised photography.

“They are shooting a little too much now,” says Mahatta. Part of the reason is technology — photographers used to be thrifty because a roll of film was precious. The rest is attitude — there isn’t a moment that’s not worth capturing because, if you try hard enough, you could perhaps capture them all.

Candid camera

“It’s not just about the wedding,” says Dayanita Singh, an artist who has worked with photography for decades. “So many other things are revealed. It allows for all the human drama to be manifest. It therefore lends itself to a lot of photography.”

When Singh returned from the US in 1989 after studying photography in New York, she recalls telling a friend that wedding photography offered a lot of creative opportunities. The friend, she says, scoffed.. “There was a slight shame attached to it,” Singh says. And now?

“I think it’s really about fulfilling everybody’s Bollywood fantasy.” she says “It’s your fantasy, it’s the photographer’s fantasy and it’s a Bollywood fantasy. You get to be Deepika (Padukone) for an evening.” Well, not just an evening. More like a week. “Then, even better,” she adds.

Anuradha Reddy was “amused”at the thought that went into choosing a photographer for her daughter’s wedding in 2013. Her daughter, Sanjana, hand-picked a six-to-eight-member photography team, complete with a videographer, who shot all five events.

Contrast that with Anuradha who remembers nothing about the photographer from her wedding in 1985. “My parents would have arranged someone,” she says, laughing. “For the reception, we didn’t even have a photographer.” Her in-laws had assumed her parents would hire someone and her parents had assumed her in-laws would.

Today — in a wedding industry worth tens of billions — this would be unforgivable.

Sanjana and Akhil’s (bottom left) cheerful shot from 2013 is in stark contrast to her parents’ stiff 1985 wedding photo (right), complete with a photo bomb; and her grandparents’ grumpy 1965 wedding photo (top left). (Courtesy: Sanjana Reddy and Stories by Joseph Radhik )

“My parents don’t have anything to show me,” says 24-year-old Jaya Tilakraj Sharma. She couldn’t even find the standard wedding photo — bride and groom side-by-side — in it. Instead, there was a close-up each of the bride and groom, pasted next to each other.

When she got engaged earlier in Kanpur this year, she hired a local photographer. “His pictures were very normal, which I did not like,” she says. Normal = guests greeting the couple, smiling as they milled about and eating.

“We never shoot all these eating shots,” says Raja Jain, co-founder of Badal Raja Company, a wedding photography firm that “specialises in cinematic wedding films and candid photography.” Candid is what Jaya had in mind when she picked Jain to shoot her wedding in Kanpur. And her pre-wedding shoot in Udaipur.

Is that candid? “It was not posing, posing,” she says. There was some posing. And twirling.

“It’s not that we ask them to do something, they want what they are,” says Jain. None of this — including pre-wedding shoots in far-off places — is unusual for Jain.

“If pocket allows, who doesn’t want to spend?” he asks.

(L) This was the closest thing to a wedding photo that Jaya Tilakraj Sharma could find of her parents. When she married in 2017 she opted for professional wedding portraits. (Courtesy: Jaya Tilakraj Sharma (L) and Badal Raja Company (R))

Daler Mehendi or Bhimsen Joshi?

Back at the Delhi farmhouse, the baraat, a kilometre-long caravan of lights and music, finally assembled off one of Delhi’s busiest roads. It crept towards the bride’s house as the elderly and babies sped past in golf carts. There was a vintage car, empty except for the driver; a moving bar; an open truck with an MC, drummers, guitarists and dancers; and finally, the groom, on a gold-ish chariot led by horses. The whiff of horse shit was hard to miss on the sidelines.

The photographers were everywhere. “I am tiny. I can fit anywhere” confesses 25-year-old Shivali Chopra, who had been shooting the groom since 10 am. She, along with her colleagues, slipped in and out, scrambled or stopped short for “candid” moments. There were plenty: drunk, laughing people stuffed notes in each other’s mouths, climbed on each other’s backs and danced wildly. The camera was invisible.

“They have placed a value on the art, the moment in your life or the life of your family,” says Joshua Karthik, co-founder of Stories who had spent the last few hours at a desk inside the bride’s house “coordinating” the shoot.

Art? Sure, wedding photographs are nothing like what they used to be. They have become snapshots of emotion writ large: of abandon, joy, bursting love or bittersweet cheer. But can their pursuit — of drama, emotion and colour — bring them closer to art?

A classicist like Dilwali wouldn’t agree. “It’s bread and butter photography,” he insists. “Do you want to be Daler Mehendi or Bhimsen Joshi?”

Neither, it turns out. A likelier choice: Invisible Man.