Camera Obscura

The dying art of hand-painting photographs

“Dasaratha and Kaushalya longing for a son” (Ramtek, Maharashtra, 2015), from Vasantha Yogananthan’s book Early Times, handpainted by Jaykumar Shankar. courtesy vasantha yogananthan
01 August, 2019

On the afternoon of 29 November, when I visited Jaykumar Shankar’s small office in Delhi’s Patel Nagar, his desk was strewn with hand-painted photographs and bottles of transparent photo colours. The photographs were for his upcoming exhibition with Vasantha Yogananthan, a photographer based in Paris who describes his work as “photographic practice that addresses the space between documentary and fiction.” The two began their collaboration in 2016, and Yogananthan’s work, A Myth of Two Souls—to which Shankar contributed—was released the following year.

Shankar flipped through some of the hundreds of black-and-white photographs that he has painstakingly coloured by hand. “If someone who is not used to transparent photo colour uses it on the photograph, it will take only one dab for the photograph to be ruined,” he told me. “It is tricky to use this colour if you can’t do it with finesse, because otherwise the photograph will get spotted, and then it takes you additional time to clean it before you start again.”

He described the headspace with which he starts hand-painting a photograph. The entire process is guided by the intuition and sensitivity of the hand-painter, he said. “It is all in the imagination.” Once he has an idea of where he wants to take a particular composition, he cleans the black-and-white print by applying a particular chemical. The photo is then kept in the dark, to protect it from exposure to sunlight. The next step is to apply the photo colours, the amount of which is determined by the relative distance of objects in the photograph. Finally, it is left to dry. The entire process can take days at a stretch, depending on the picture. Shankar uses a colour palette suggested by Yogananthan for the projects they collaborate on.

Hand-painting photographs was a popular practice in the West during the nineteenth century. The art arrived in India around the same time as photography itself. Deepali Dewan, an art professor at the University of Toronto, argues in her book Embelished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs: Towards a Transcultural History of Photography, that “the desire to manipulate the photographic image stemmed from what was perceived as the limitations of photography’s technical capabilities.” The first generation of Indian hand-painters were court painters, who had, prior to the advent of photography, faithfully recorded minute details of prominent royal events, including subtle variations in costume. Even though photography had taken over their role of capturing an exact rendition of what the eye could see, the medium had its limitations. “Painting and photography have always been linked,” Yogananthan told me. “Painters were looking at photographs and vice versa.”

“Magic Jungle” (Jog Falls, Karnataka, 2016), from Vasantha Yogananthan’s book Dandaka, handpainted by Jaykumar Shankar. courtesy vasantha yogananthan

By the mid nineteenth century, paintings and photography were fused together into a hybrid art form in India. Over the years, hand-coloured photographs became more accessible, as photo studios hired skilled hand-painters and offered their services to the public. In his book Painted Photographs: Coloured Portraiture in India, Rahaab Allana, the curator of the Alkazi Foundation for Arts, writes that “colours in Indian textiles convey meaning embedded in several simultaneous registers—they indicate social and marital status, signify the seasons and major festivals. Rituals are often associated with the use of textiles in a specific colour.” He adds that the “need for photographs to convey the colourful splendour and symbolism of Indian textiles quickly manifested through the new medium of painted photographs.”

Jaykumar Shankar inherited the art from his parents, Indra Prakash and Tara Devi, who were prolifc hand-painters. courtesy philippe calia

Shankar said that his family has been hand-painting photographs for six generations. In the nineteenth century, they were based on the banks of the river Sarayu—Shankar, a devout Hindu, said their proximity to Ayodhya, Ram’s mythical birthplace, lent his family’s work a certain “godliness.” All of the photographs of the religious organisation Radha Soami Satsang, he said, had been hand-painted by his family.

Shankar learnt the art of hand-painting from his parents, Indra Prakash and Tara Devi. He told me that his mother had developed her own interpretation of the photographs of the eighteenth-century ruler Tipu Sultan, and hand-painted around forty thousand photographs before she stopped pursuing the craft. “My parents also hand-painted pictures for the king of Bhutan and Hyderabad’s Nizam’s Palace. And then there was this image, of the 1971 war, hand-painted by my mother long back.” Their work had earned them enough recognition that the actor Amitabh Bachchan and the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi met them, Shankar said with evident pride.

Allana told me that the practice of hand-painting has been pigeonholed as an older tradition. “There is no mass production of this particular art form, and the craft is considered very niche. While this historical tradition came in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century, digital technologies replaced this traditional practice.” The advent of colour photography killed the demand for hand-painted photographs. Many hand-painters were driven to look for alternate sources of income, since the profession could not sustain them. When Shankar was growing up, there were only eight to ten hand-painters left in Delhi. He felt he was restricted both because of geography and the changing times.

Allana first came across Shankar’s work while making a film on hand-painting, in 2001, through Mahatta, a studio in Delhi’s Connaught Place that had many of Indra Prakash’s photographs. After getting to know Shankar, he put him in touch with Yogananthan in 2015. Yogananthan’s A Myth of Two Souls was a photographic project inspired by the Ramayana, providing a modern retelling of the story using hand-painted photographs. “I was interested by the concept of journey in time,” Yogananthan told me over email. “Colours are fundamental in the way we read photographs, they influence how we read them. The idea behind the series was to mix classic color photographs with hand-painted photographs in order to confuse the viewer. Is he looking [at] photographs of today’s India or from the past?”

As the scope of the art form continues to be restricted, Allana and Dewan have made active attempts to chronicle this part of India’s visual history. Shankar and Yogananthan have been instrumental in reviving it over the past few decades. Allana told me that, “as a practice, hand-painting is at the cusp of fading altogether.” Yogananthan was more optimistic. “Hand-painting has a great potential and many contemporary artists are revisiting or using old techniques,” he said. “The trick is to do so not out of pure nostalgia, but to bring something new to the tradition.”