If you can’t make a good picture,’ I heard S Paul tell his understudy: ‘Muay! At least find a good face.’
This tale of the Shutter Sutra began when the Greeks called anything with an arched cover Kamara. Light enters through a pinhole to produce an inverted image on the opposite wall. Renaissance painters like Leonardo Da Vinci sketched on a wall through which light came in. Later came the camera obscura, much reduced in size with a ground glass at one end so that image could be seen outside and one could call it the forerunner of the portabilis of the 19th century.
I plead guilty to a casual flirtation with pictures beginning in the summer of 1975. What began with the June issue of Imprint Magazine, R V Pandit, the owner-publisher announced the release of India’s first picture book: “Even though I say so, Ganga: Sacred River of India, with a text by Eric Newby, is the finest pictorial book India have ever produced.” It was, to say the least, a bit pompous, but I wasn’t smitten—I was sold hook, line and sinker. I wanted my name on a coffee table book too.
That came in 1995, when Ruskin Bond and I were invited to do a book on our hill station, Mussoorie and Landour: Days of Wine & Roses. Looking back, I find the past is another country where things were done differently. Like on the occasion, I found myself wandering around Konark’s Sun Temple when I spotted
a photographer with a clutch of old cameras strung around his neck.
How on earth did he manage to use these?
Where did he find the film?
Or for that matter, who would process them? I wondered. My attempts at striking up a conversation were dismissed with a withering, “Mobilewala photographer hai kya?”
He moved on with a gaggle of tourists. ‘Smile!’ he shouts at them and, at the last moment, whips out a smartphone and finishes the task. Clever man! All those cameras were decoys, or props or window-dressing to attract the unsuspecting.
Mouth agape, I know how the dinosaurs must have felt when that meteor hit the Earth, triggering extinction. A similar tale unfolded at the Parsonage, actor Victor Banerjee’s home where, by chance, a boy had met a girl, fell in love and with disapproving parents, we had an elopement at hand with Victor taking pictures with an analogue.
“Ganesh! Please drop this off at the photo lab,” he said. I did so. The result was just a strip of celluloid.
“The prints?” I asked with trepidation. Victor would be cross—and he was—but only with himself.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
I passed him a felt-tipped pen. “Write something nice on it.” It looked cute, a yard of the transparent film stretched across the bridal pillows with the legend scribbled across: ‘Happy Wedding pictures. 1992!’
Yes! Truth is always stranger than fiction.
Author, photographer, and illustrator whose works have been translated into two-dozen languages