Of trains, turbans and tribals, a sepia history

MUMBAI: From the time Mukesh Parpiani took over as curator of the Piramal Art Gallery at the NCPA a little over a week ago, the empty walls troubled him. The downbeat economic atmosphere had taken a toll on the number of exhibitions hosted by the prestigious gallery, and Parpiani wanted to change the mood.

That's when he came up with a cost-free idea to draw Mumbaikars eager to gaze on a slice of history. He spent hours sifting through old photographs, some of them dating back to 1800s, from the NCPA's fabulous archive stacked with rare photographs by some of India's greatest lensmen. "Some of the pictures had been donated by photographers who had showcased their works here and others were given to the NCPA by admirers and collectors of rare photographs,'' says Parpiani, a well-known photojournalist.

The photographers who were shortlisted for the exhibition, asserts Parpiani, are the "godfathers of Indian photography'' and include Praful Patel, A L Sayed, R R Bhardwaj, Jyoti Bhatt, T Kashinath, Ashwin Gatha, Tarpada Banerjee, Pranlal Patel, John Isaac and Carl De Keyzer. There are also photos by Sumant Moolgaokar, former chairman of Telco, who used to shoot with a Hasselblad.

Walking through the art gallery is like a crash course in the evolution of photography in India. From rare photographs taken from the early plate camera and then touched up with hand-painting (like the portrait of a royal whose stately turban has been painted with glitter by an unknown artist) to more contemporary scenes of the Mumbaikar's commuting nightmare and tribal life in India, the pale walls of the gallery have certainly come alive. Some of the more memorable photographs are Tarpada Banerjee's of a journalist lying flat on a road to adjust an outdated camera and another one of tribal women sticking their necks into a gramophone to see how it works. "First it was the gramophone and now it's the mobilephone,'' smiles Parpiani.

To spice up the ambience, he has pasted lines like `A photograph is memory in the raw' and `There are no rules for good photography' on the walls. He says there is pressure to shut down the gallery but he is trying his best to sustain it. "You see it's prime property and there's a lot of commercial interest,'' he says. Until things pick up at the Piramal, Parpiani wants to see if his experiment with history will do the trick. "We have so many rare and old photographs in our archives, even if we do this every fortnight we could last for years,'' he says.