To understand a vanishing culture, its colours and scents, it must be juxtaposed with the “present”. In this selfie-obsessed age, therefore, photographer Ketaki Sheth’s latest book and exhibition, both named Photo Studio, make a spirited defence of that which has, under the onslaught of the digital medium, been eased out of the spotlight.
Sheth’s documentation of photo studios across eight states in India, from 2015 to 2018, has culminated in a book designed by Itu Chaudhuri, and an exhibition curated by Devika Daulet-Singh at Photoink gallery in Delhi. It also marks her departure from analogue and black-and-white images. “Supplies were getting scarcer and the skill set of people to process and print in Mumbai was almost non-existent. So, it was as though I was forced to make the transition and I felt that if I didn’t try it, I would never know it,” she says.
So, her trusted Leica M6 — “a reliable companion of 25 years” — was jettisoned for the Leica M9. “My friend Sooni Taraporevala advised me to go back to the Leica, which is designed exactly like the M6 except that it doesn’t have film, instead of picking up a (Canon) Mark III or Nikon. I felt that, intuitively, I would be able to leap into it much faster,” says Sheth, 61, who started making images under the tutelage of photographer Raghubir Singh in the late 1980s. While the streetscape of her city of residence, Bombay, was her muse from 1988 to 2004, leading to the book and exhibition Bombay Mix (2007), Sheth shifted her lens to create photobooks such as Twinspotting: Photographs of Patel Twins in Britain and India (1999) and A Certain Grace, The Sidi: Indians of African Descent (2013).
The idea of photographing studios, however, was not a calculated one. A stumble into Jagdish Photo Studio in Sheth’s native town, Manori, 50 km from Mumbai, turned out to be the catalyst. “One day, when I was shooting on the streets, I discovered a photo studio and I was quite surprised because I know every spot and blemish of Manori. Wedged between a hardware store and a grain depot, it was almost invisible. I poked my head in to see this blazing red curtain and a blue stool. I thought it was like a painting,” she says. “The manager put me on to the widow of the owner, who was struggling to keep the place running. She said it was now scarcely visited unless there’s a festival. If I wasn’t so drawn in by the curtain and the stool, I would not have taken on an exercise in studying the studio.”
The first photo studio in India, Bourne & Shepherd, was established in 1840 in Calcutta. The studios, too, were owned by the British. Guided by an Orientalist gaze, these studios were commissioned to visually document India’s archaeological sites and social structure. Bourne & Shepherd, it is believed, documented the Delhi Durbar held to commemorate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India in 1911. William Johnson and Vidal Portman documented tribes as well as caste in the subcontinent. Portrait studios, however, only grew in numbers in 1849. Since many of them employed Indians, the skill came to stay. By early and mid-20th century, photo studios such as the Indian Art Studio (Mumbai), Mahatta & Co (Srinagar), Hamilton Studios (Mumbai), India Photo Studio (Mumbai), among others had come up. Sheth’s book features a stark image of tungsten lights at India Photo Studio, “that the founder designed and where, once, stars like Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Dileep Kumar would come to have their portraits done. The tungsten lights are rarely used now,” she says.
While most similar establishments Sheth visited were being pushed further into obscurity, some still survived. In the people who pottered in — a farmer in Rajasthan who had come for a picture of his documents; schoolgirls who wanted photos for their ID cards in Bhavnagar; a couple who were readily offered the loveseat in Trivandrum; families who came for Eid pictures in Manori — Sheth found her subjects.
Some were brought in, like the leheria-clad mannequin from an adjoining sari shop in Jaipur or the unassuming gwala (milk-seller) going about his business in Ajmer. “In Moti Art Studio, which is 50 years old, I found a backdrop of a cityscape, a kind I hadn’t seen anywhere in my journey through studios. I kept waiting for people to come in. A bunch of school kids came and we took pictures but it didn’t work. The owner suggested we invite someone from the streets. I saw this gwala, who couldn’t understand why I wanted to photograph him. He asked me if I wanted the doodh ka dabba in the frame and of course I did,” she says.
In the compendium of images from the 65 studios she visited, caution is interspersed with spontaneity; poignancy with wit; and in capturing the photo studios’ air of lassitude, nostalgia with apathy.
Sheth’s focus extends to the paraphernalia of the photo studios — faux backdrops, lights, stools — triggering the imagination to compose images that might once have been taken at these studios. One peculiar prop photographed by Sheth is of Gandhi, which she found at Prince Studio in Bhavnagar. “It’s a big studio with three floors and, unlike many others that I went to, did not seem like a dying one. On the top floor, the owner stored old props that no one was interested in anymore. When we went in, I saw this Gandhi prop. He told me that his father used to place it in the centre, with schoolchildren on either side, for pictures,” she says, adding, “I noticed that almost all the studios had a coat that people could walk in and wear. Somehow, that one size fit all.”
While the accouterments may now seem obsolete, in small towns, the photo studios still witness a stream of customers, albeit a stymied one. “They have turned into functional spaces. I don’t think they are important milestones in the towns as they once were. To keep themselves in business, most are diversifying. Everyone is so ready to learn and leap into the digital age because there is commerce in it. Everyone has a digital camera, no one uses film anymore and many had computers that were linked to the camera. Backdrops, too, are digital now,” she says.
When Sheth suggested that the owners preserve their backdrops, “for they could one day land up at a museum, they all assumed that I was being nice because they let me use their studios. I don’t think there is a clear notion that they are of historical value.”