The sudden passing of Gautam Rajadhyaksha on Tuesday shocked many in the film and photography worlds. Perhaps lesser known is another master photographer of the film industry, who also passed away in Bombay on July 21.
If Rajadhyaksha created iconic images of stars like Rekha and Madhuri Dixit, Jitendra Arya’s portraits of Meena Kumari and Nutan appeared on the covers of Filmfare from the 1950s.
While we may not always connect the portraits with the photographers, the images are often familiar to us as are the stories that surround them.
Starting his photography in East Africa and London, Arya was employed by the Times of India. Twenty years later, Rajadhyaksha started working as a lecturer of chemistry at St Xaviers. His cousin Shobhaa De persuaded him to follow his heart and he became head of the photo department at Lintas at the age of 23.
Both began their careers at a time when photography had a huge presence with magazines as the primary outlets for such work. If Arya’s images were more formal, Rajadhyaksha created a new language through casual but equally glamorous star portraits in Stardust and Celebrity.
Rajadhyaksha’s oft-quoted mastery over soft-focus emerged perhaps from a loving engagement with his subjects. He often said he wanted the star to look good but to also “look like a person”.
Both photographers believed in using soft light but Arya disliked the casualness of the 35 mm camera, as he felt that it made photographers careless. But Rajadhyaksha welcomed 35 mm’s flexibility and its ability to create mood.
If Arya and his contemporaries were pioneers, Rajadhyaksha charted out a specialised profession and mentored others. He pioneered the trend of shooting stylised and specially staged film stills with Maine Pyar Kiya.
He was also known to give away his unpublished transparencies for cheap posters that sold near Lamington road.
I first met both photographers two years ago. On my second visit, Arya had already forgotten me. He spoke in brief fragments, mostly prompted by his photographs and often lapsed into the silence that surrounded him increasingly. As one man’s archive slowly faded away from his memory, the other was invested in the project of recall.
Rajadhyaksha was a fund of information. He also had the ability to analyse the context in which he worked. He spoke insightfully about the elusiveness of star presence in the 1950s and the influence of illustrated magazines like Life, Look and Picture Post. He was an intuitive photographer but one who could also speak eloquently about his own craft.
One of the projects that he has left unfinished is the launch of a course on photography at Symbiosis in Pune.
Multi-faceted as he was (a music buff, Marathi writer and screenwriter), Rajadhyaksha understood the worth of studying photography as a discipline, which is rare in an industry that tends to valorise practice. Above all, he understood the value of his predecessors.
When Arya passed away he wrote an email to me, “I and my contemporaries and the generations after us need to acknowledge the fact that we all are where we are because he was there in the dim years when a photograph was appreciated, but rarely the man who made it happen.” Less than two months later, Rajadhyaksha, too, is gone and prematurely.
But he leaves behind an astounding body of work: a rich and valuable archive of photography. It did occur to me once to ask him if it bothered him not to be acknowledged in the street posters of Lamington road.
My guess is that it did not. He knew that like Arya, his images would have an enduring life in our collective memory.
(Sabeena Gadihoke is associate professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia University. The views expressed by the author are personal)