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.
The Mahatta show doubles up as family archive and an archive of the nation-state. Early images document the rapid spread of the business, from the remarkable 1918 assemblage on the houseboat under the sign “Mahatta Art Studio” to full-fledged shops in Srinagar, on the Bund, where a branch of the family still runs the 1915 store; a shop in Pahalgam, Gulmarg, which was burnt down in a market fire in the 1930s; branches of the studio in Rawalpindi and Murree that were both abandoned at the time of Partition; and finally one in Delhi, where Mahatta still functions from the studio Amar Nath set up in 1951. Several pictures are from the Mehta family album. Some are stated as being so, such as the one of Sohan Lall Chopra with his wife Lajwanti (née Mehta) who looks terribly young despite her stern spectacles, making it hard to believe that the two children in the centre are hers. Others are undeclared, such as the unnamed studio portrait of a young woman with sparkling eyes and two plaits. This picture, Pankaj informed me as we walked around the show, is of his mother Usha, who married Amar Nath's only son Madan in 1958.
Madan Mehta, who died in 2014 at the age of 82, not only made Mahatta a household name, but was also one of India's most unusual photographers. Mehta is best known for his images of Delhi's modernist architecture that were last seen in the 2012 show Delhi Modern and are also on display at the exhibition now. However, “Picturing a Century” allows us to see Mehta as far more varied in his interests. He did wonderful studio portraits, such as an undated one of Indian model and actress Persis Khambatta in a polka-dot bikini, and another of the Kathak dancer Birju Maharaj in 1980, the intensity of his gaze matched by his tightly clasped hands. Mehta also had a flair for candid portraits: it is visible in his picture of the Dalai Lama at the funeral of India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, looking leaner and meaner than we can imagine him; or former prime minister Indira Gandhi looking none too happy at having to accompany Jackie Kennedy—the wife of John F Kennedy, who was then the president of the USA—to the Cottage Industries Emporium in 1962. He wasn't averse to the newsy image: on 29 May 1964, Madan climbed atop India Gate for an unmatched view of the crowds surrounding Nehru's funeral cortège.