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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2019

Mumbaiwale: How Bombay developed photography 130 years ago

At the turn of the last century, photos were turning into art, and this city was a big part of the change

mumbai Updated: Oct 11, 2019 23:56 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Shapoor Bhedwar’s 1890s work, such as his Tyag series, is among the earliest instances of Bombay photographers creating artistic imagery.
Shapoor Bhedwar’s 1890s work, such as his Tyag series, is among the earliest instances of Bombay photographers creating artistic imagery. (THE ARTFUL POSE. ISTOCK )

What do you see when you raise your camera (or even cameraphone) to take a picture? Do you see the world as it is or how you want it to be? How do your filters, #bokeh blurs, and #VSCO colour manipulations change your photo from documentation to art? And when did we start fiddling around with the light and subject to create more than what was already present?

At a talk I attended this week at the CSMVS, it turns out we’ve been playing around with pictures for well over a century. Art and aesthetics expert Jyotindra Jain’s session was titled Pictorialist Photography in Bombay at the Turn of the Century, and presented Bombay as a thriving playground for photographers starting to see photography as a creative form.

We know very little of this. Even Google offers very few examples of what was going on in photography between 1890 and 1930 while India was changing its mind about British rule. In the West, a growing number of photographers were calling themselves Pictorialists, creating pictures that could be seen as art.

These are images that were consciously composed, assuming a painterly quality that didn’t exist in photos before. The lighting was directed and often soft focus.

Jain says the movement had strong echoes in Bombay as well – local photographers kickstarted the change with their studio and outdoor shots.

Shapoor Bhedwar, perhaps the best known of the local Pictorialists, used the training he’d gained at London’s Polytechnic School of Photography in 1889 to create pictures at his studio on Princess Street in Kalbadevi.

He also had interests in literature, art and theatre. Most imagery borrowed from the Parsi and Gujarati stage. And Jain notes that Bhedwar, even in his early 20s, was talented enough to participate in the International Photographic exhibition in Liverpool, England, in 1891, winning the top honour from among 4,000 entrants. His image, titled Force of Silence, features blind fakir discoursing with his daughter on the doctrines of faith. The Photograhic Times called his work “eminently painterlike”.

Other images feature Parsi ceremonies, assemblages of women (many images will call to mind Ravi Varma paintings) and imagery from popular books of the time.

Jain says there’s little information available on other Pictorialist photographers of the time: Jehangir S Taraporewala, Pestonji S Batliwala, DRD Wadia, N Sethna and Karl Khandalawala. Tarapore, who returned to India in 1910, produced works of astonishingly good quality of the time. He acquired Bhedwar’s studio and focused on less mystical subjects – mostly recreated stylized scenes from routine social and domestic life – women sweeping, praying and seated by a backdrop. “It’s not motionless melancholia but the performative theatre of everyday,” Jain says.

The pictures, developed on platinum prints, would have been expensive. Wealthy families would have considered them a status symbol, displaying them prominently at home. For everyone else, reprints in magazines would have been the best way to enjoy them. His studios motto: “Keep smiling, the rest will be looked after by Tarapore”.

Most photographers loved water and reflections – perhaps the simplest ways to introduce dramatic effects in a picture.

Taraporewala’s studio was eventually bought over by Batliwala, who’d previously created outdoor works. Their style was popular enough to have a backlash, a group of photographers rebelled against manipulation to pursue what they called Straight Photography. But the camera’s affair with imagination had truly begun, and continues to this day with your saturated sunsets on Instagram.

First Published: Oct 11, 2019 23:54 IST

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