In the second decade of the twentieth century, an unlettered young man from a small town in Gurdaspur district of undivided Punjab fled his landed, farming family because of a murderous feud among his relatives. Having reached his nanihaal—the home of his maternal grandparents—in the colonial hill station of Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh, the young Amar Nath Mehta learnt how to wield a camera from foreign army personnel. When his brother-in-law Sohan Lall Chopra was posted to Srinagar, he realised that the trade that would barely make Amar Nath a living in Dalhousie could prove profitable in the more touristic environs of Kashmir. Amar Nath, who thought of himself as a self-taught photographer, decided he could also be a self-taught businessman. He moved to Srinagar with his younger brother Ram Nath—and so began the saga of one of India's longest-surviving photographic studios that has now completed a century.
“When Amar Nath Mehta started Mahatta & Co. in 1915 on a houseboat on the Jhelum in Srinagar, photography had already made its mark on the subcontinent,” begins the introduction to the book Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Indian Photography, 1915-2015 (2015), written by Pavan Mehta, Amar Nath's grandson, who now runs the company with his brother Pankaj. This commemorative volume has been published alongside an exhibition of photographs from the Mahatta archive, also called “Picturing a Century,” currently on show at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi. The exhibition is generally more selective than the book, though it opens with some images tracking the progress of a construction site in Lutyens' Delhi which, upon closer inspection, turns out to be the IGNCA itself.