Box Cameras to Selfies

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They have witnessed Kashmir’s changing fortunes through their camera lenses for about five decades. Nazir Ahmad Rather talks to two ace photographers who still work at Mahatta & Co.

In 1969, a young boy named Mehrajudin, then 15, would daily visit Mahatta’s Colour Lab, located on the banks of Jehlum River, and swift through heaps of black-and-white pictures left in the waste bin outside. It was sort of a hobby for Mehrajudin. He would carefully separate pictures from the waste paper and take them home.

One morning when Mehrajudin was busy looking for photographs, an assistant from Mahatta’s lab caught him and dragged him inside the studio.

He was straight taken to the owner of the studio Ram Chand Mehta, who asked him the reason for his strange behavior. “I am actually looking for a picture of my mother who died when I was just 6,” replied Mehrajudin.

Moved with his reply Mehta instantly offered him a job at the studio. “I was appointed as an assistant in the lab,” recalls Mehrajudin.

Without giving a second thought Mehrajudin took up the offer. “There are around twenty other workers in the studio.”

It took Mehrajudin almost first five years to understand the basics of photography.

Same year Mehrajudin’s friend Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, who was looking for a job, approached Mahatta studio. He too was appointed as an assistant in the studio. “It has been 47 years now,” said Sofi with a hint of nostalgia in his voice. “Photography has changed a lot since.”

While learning the basics of photography, both Mehrajudin and Sofi, through their lenses, witnessed life transform in Kashmir. “From traffic less Lal Chowk roads to bustling Shikaras with foreign and Indian tourists, to village life, to beautiful landscapes of Gulmarg and Phalgham, we have captured almost every aspect of life in Kashmir,” said Mehrajudin.

And at the same time both are witness, rather part of the transition, that photography went through over the decades. “We have come a long way from large box camera to highly sophisticated automatic ones,” said Sofi.

Back in 60’s huge 120mm negatives were used to click pictures. These negatives were glass like and needed separate enlargers to develop photographs from them using manually adjusted colours.

“It was quite challenging to be a photographer during those days as people expected a lot from us,” said Mehrajudin. “People were very particular about perfection in photography.”

During those days, recalls Sofi, people would come to Mahatta studio to get their portraits done. “It was considered classy and fashionable to have a portrait photo,” recalls Sofi.

However, clicking a perfect portrait picture was not an easy thing to do. “It was a long and hectic process for both photographers and customers,” said Mehrajudin.

As everything was done manually, it was considered a challenge to click a perfect and flawless shot. A customer was supposed to take prior appointment before visiting the studio.

“We would instruct customers to wear formals so that a portrait looks good,” recalls Mehrajudin. “We were like artists.”

Once the portrait was clicked, the process of developing a negative into a photograph required patience and expertise.

“It was important to know the right amount of chemicals used in this process,” said Sofi. “It would often take hours to mix chemicals.”

Mehrajudin feels photography nowadays is quite easy compared to what it used to be. “Even to maintain perfect temperature while developing pictures required a great deal of knowledge.”

A slight variation in temperature inside the lab used to damage entire stock. “Using appropriate exposure of light, right filters and skillful use of chemicals in the dark room needed expert hands,” said Mehrajudin.

Both Mehrajudin and Sofi have a number of different cameras including now vintage wooden box camera, wooden field camera, Roliflex and early stages of Nikons. “The transition is fascinating. Now anybody can be a photographer without any efforts,” feels Sofi.

Another facet of early days of photography was marriage albums. “It was not everybody cup of tea,” said Mehrajudin.

Interestingly, not everybody could afford a photo album. “It was for elite class only,” said Mehrajudin.

Those days it was in vogue to have portraits clicked after marriage. These portraits of bride and bridegroom would adore drawing rooms of affluent across Kashmir.

Both Mehrajudin and Sofi were famous during their hay days, as foreigners visiting Kashmir would make it a point to get their pictures clicked by them. “We had to constantly adapt to the changes,” said Sofi. “We would learn to handle different equipments as and when change occurred.”

Recently both Mehrajudin and Sofi switched to digital photography as it is easy and affordable. “World has moved aesthetic photography to selfies,” feels Mehrajudin.

These veteran photographers believe that mobile phone photography has killed the essence of picture taking.

“We had to go through rigorous training before we were allowed to touch a camera,” said Sofi. “Nowadays all one needs is to buy a mobile phone and he is a photographer.”

The duo gives credit to their mentor Ram Chand Mehta and his son Jagdish Mehta for teaching them the art of photography. “They were geniuses in this field,” said Sofi.

It was Ram Chand Mehta whose unique photography skills made Mahatta studios the most famous lab in Kashmir.

As famous photographers with a career spanning over five decades, both Mehrajudin and Sofi have captured some important events in Kashmir’s history. “We covered high-profile visits of Indira Gandhi, Gyani Zail Singh, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, H D Devi Gowda among other,” said Mehrajudin. “We also covered Sheikh Abdullah’s funeral and the famous expedition to Kolhai glacier.”

Mahatta studios have a huge collection of memorable pictures that depict Kashmir’s changing life and fortunes.

The collection includes pictures of Nehru and Mountbatten visit, and different events from Maharajas’ life. It also has a pictures surrounding Sheikh Abdullah life. “I have seen different facets of life in Kashmir while working at Mahatta,” said Sofi. “I feel lucky to be able to capture a few in my camera for future generations.”

Founded by brother Ram Chand and Amar Nath Mehta in 1915 from a house boat in Srinagar, Mahatta & Co. turned out to be a success story in photography that has survived over a century now. Before partition Mahatta & Co. had its outlets in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Muree, Jammu, Nigeen, Gulmarg and Srinagar.

“This studio has a treasure trove of pictures clicked by Ram Chand Mehta and his progenies,” said Sofi.

Plans are afoot to transform Mahatta studios into a museum where rare equipments, film rolls, filters, lenses and cameras can be put on display alongside photographs.

“This studio has captured almost everything related to Kashmir except the shrines and temples of the valley which sounds very strange,” said Hemant Mehta, the grandson of Ram Chnad Mehta, and present owner of the Mahatta & Co.

“We want to turn this lab into a platform for young artist, writers, poets, and photographers.”

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