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.”