While the struggle for freedom was still gaining momentum in India, in 1912, Amar Nath Mehta, a 14-year-old from Gurdaspur in undivided Punjab, fled his home and landed in the hills of Dalhousie. Keen to learn, the unlettered boy began to experiment with the Rolleiflex camera, primarily guided by the British. He knew the profession could not pay much in the cantonment hill, but in Srinagar – with pristine mountainscapes and flocked by several tourists – it could possibly be a profitable trade.
So in 1915, he packed his bags once again, this time for the Valley, where Mahatta & Co began operations on a houseboat in Srinagar. Another store was set up in the posh Bund area, followed by branches in Rawalpindi and Sialkot. By the time Mehta migrated to Delhi to escape the chaos of Partition, the brand was already well-established and popular. It went on to become one of India’s longest-surviving photography studios and completed a century in 2015.
“It has been a long and challenging journey. In this digital age, it is becoming more and more difficult to survive, but we are reinventing ourselves constantly,” says Pavan Mehta, who now runs the store in Connaught Place with his brother Pankaj and son Arjun.
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When the shop closed part of its premises for renovation, it was mistaken to have shut operations, leading to several false obituaries. “We received several inquiries,” says Mehta.
He recalls long queues of people waiting to get matrimonial photographs clicked outside the shop in the late 1970s and 80s, when he worked in the store with his father Madan Mahatta.
“People had to wait for more than an hour… now we hardly get three or four people for matrimonial photographs each week. We were the pioneers in India, among the first to introduce colour negatives and digital photographs in the country. We knew digital photography will change things but never imagined it would be so drastic,” says Pavan.
Wedding photography, though, is still profitable.
“We do assignments across India, and destination weddings abroad,” adds Pavan, who famously taught actor Amitabh Bachchan how to develop a film when the actor was recuperating from an injury during the shooting of the film Coolie, in the early 1980s.
The renovation might mean reduction in space occupied by the photo business, but Pavan assures that it will not be discontinued completely. “We might begin something else, but there will still be ample space dedicated to photography. We will have a photo studio and a lab,” he says.
With several old cameras and negatives in their possession, the rising interest in archival photographs has also led the family to explore that field. Last year, they celebrated 100 years with an exhibition of Madan Mahatta’s photographs.
Known for photographing the buildings of post-independence Delhi, the frames included the construction of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Palika Bazaar, Raj Rewal’s Hall of Nations, apart from striking aerial views of the city. Browsing through even older photographs of the pristine Kashmir of the 1920s and 30s, Pavan shares that these too will soon be curated for an exhibition.
“It is the untouched Kashmir, before violence penetrated,” he says, as he readies to finalise the minute details of renovation.