The dying art of color painting black-and-white photos - Hindustan Times

The dying art of color painting black-and-white photos

Hindustan Times | By
Jul 25, 2020 01:48 AM IST

The color painting of black-and-white photos reveals the link between the two art forms

There is no visible trace of art at Jaykumar Shankar’s office in West Delhi. People in the neighborhood know him as an astrologer who is involved in the upkeep of Hanuman temple in the vicinity. Only his family members and close friends know that his passion is hand-painting black-and-white photographs. “This tradition is as good as dead,” says 45-years-old Shankar, spreading a black-and-white photo on a wooden plank. “I get assignments once or twice a year from people in India and abroad who are aware of my skill and its significance. Others don’t know.”

An image Jaykumar Shankar painted for Paris based artist Vasantha Yoganathan.(Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)
An image Jaykumar Shankar painted for Paris based artist Vasantha Yoganathan.(Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO)

His mastery of the art form is at play as he mixes transparent colours to create shades and then applies them on the sheet to bring to life various elements in the image--ground, trees, sky, a giant rock and two kids standing by the rock. “One who cannot create a three-dimensional imagery does not qualify as an artist. If there are different shades in a person’s hair due to sunlight, a photograph will capture that. I have to show that through colours,” he says.

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Jaykumar Shankar, one of the last practitioners of the art, at his workshop in Delhi. (Rahul Chandra Rai)
Jaykumar Shankar, one of the last practitioners of the art, at his workshop in Delhi. (Rahul Chandra Rai)

Shankar practises the art form which is currently considered niche. It was in mass production and patronised by the royal families during the nineteenth century but gradually faded out of fashion with the advent of colour photography. Now, art connoisseurs, researchers and collectors occasionally commission work to Shankar’s tribe.

Shankar says that his previous four generations were into hand-painting. He grew up in Lucknow with his parents, Indra Prakash and Tara Devi. Both of them practiced the tradition. His grandparents used to live in Ayodhya near Sarayu river. “Every time we visited my grandparents, we would first bath in the river,” he says. “The Balrampur family, the king of Bhutan and the palace of the Nizam of Hyderabad commissioned work to my parents,” he says.

When the family shifted to Delhi, Indra Prakash joined Mahatta Studio, Connaught Place, where he worked as a hand-painter for over thirty years. “He was the best among the three artists we had. He was quick and precise,” says Pavan Mehta, who now runs the studio with his brother Pankaj. “Even after the introduction of colour photography, there were a few customers who wanted their black-and-white pictures painted in color instead of getting a color photo clicked. It gives a painting-like feeling,” says Mehta.

Rahaab Allana, curator, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts has closely studied the relation between painting and photography. “Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur patronised arts including hand painting and photography. Majority of artists in his palace were from adi gaur caste. They used to describe themselves as kalmi-chitrakar or hand colour artist. One of the finest of them was Pannalal Parasram Gaur of Mewar (Rajasthan). He headed the royal painting workshop under Maharana Fateh Singh,” he says.

In an article for the International Institute for Asian Studies, Allana writes that in the aftermath of the 1857 Uprising, many princely estates got subjugated across north India due to which provincial craftsmen and artisans moved to urban centres in search of patronage through commissions.


The other category of artists which experimented with hand-painted photography with the introduction of photography in 1840 was the Company School artists. These were Indian artists who painted various aspects of the country including portraits, festivals, landscapes and court proceedings under the patronage of the British East India Company.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the medium became accessible to public through studio photography.

Jyotindra Jain, former professor of arts & aesthetics, JNU says, “In the Indian context, the painted photograph denoted two distinct practices, namely just tinting it with photographic pigments without adding any ancillary motifs, and/or amplifying it with entirely new paraphernalia of decor such as furniture, rugs, backdrops or even landscapes, which were not part of the original print. Both practices overturned, in varying degrees, the conventional notion of photography as chronicle of truth and relocated it into the realm of imagination.”

In 2013, Allana was doing his research on hand-painting for a fellowship when he discovered Indra Prakash at Mahatta studio and eventually met his son, Shankar.

Two years later, Shankar got introduced to Paris based artist Vasantha Yoganathan.

They collaborated for A Myth of Two Souls, Yoganathan’s project inspired by the Ramayana which combined colour photography, hand-painted photography, mixed media and video installation.

While Shankar gives his best to every single work he gets, he is not upbeat about the future of the tradition of hand painting. “It is great feeling when people coming asking for me once in a blue moon. But this

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