Almost 20 years ago, Christophe Prébois was driving down a road in Ajmer, Rajasthan, when a photograph displayed in the first-floor window of what ostensibly was a dry cleaner’s shop caught his eye. The image was of a group of men, all holding guns, and the French photographer was intrigued by the mismatch between the shop and the display. A conversation with the shop’s owner, Gurumuk Chand, revealed that upstairs was a photography studio named Shatranj, which was run by his father, Ram Chand. The photograph on display had been in the shop for many years.
“It was my second trip to India and I had come with a camera thinking I would come back with an amazing harvest of images,” said Prébois. “But I soon realised that I’d rather look for images already done, images witnessing the past and, above all, images done by Indian photographers.”
Prébois’ obsession with Ram Chand’s work was immediate, and over the next few years he made many trips to India to get to know him. With the son’s help, he finally convinced Chand, whom he describes as a “grumpy old man,” to tell his story—“Mr Chand was rather intimidating and wouldn’t let me freely roam around the studio. He had a closet crammed with all the negatives he had done but he would not let me look at them. He got more relaxed on the matter only when he retired some years later.” In 2016, Prébois was allowed to follow Chand around with a video camera.
For Prébois’ documentary film, Mr Ram Chand Photographer, the octogenarian relives the 1960s and 1970s, when his photo studio was “the most respected establishment in the area.” “The first thing he told us in response to our project was ‘Mera time ho gaya’—‘my time is done’—but in the end he was pleased to be the centre of our interest and to recall his memories,” said Prébois.
Prébois’ first instinct was to use the archival material gathered from Chand in a photography exhibition, but he realised that the soul of this work was within Chand himself. “That was why I decided to shoot this documentary movie,” he said. “Mr Chand was the person most fit to give some basic information about the pictures and I was lucky he was willing to speak about his work.”
The documentary will be screened in India as part of JaipurPhoto, an international outdoor photography festival being held in Jaipur from Feb. 23 to March 4.
A Bollywood fantasy
“Mr Chand started his first business, a studio called Navrang, in 1959,” said Prébois. “He opened Shatranj in 1969. Both studios were named after famous movies released the same year. His reasons to be a photographer were very different from ours these days. To him it was just a job. A job he did with all his heart, always trying to fulfill his clients’ satisfaction, but still a job. He almost never did a picture for his own pleasure and totally stopped taking pictures the day he retired.”
By the time Prébois met Chand in the late 1990s, his photography business was already on the decline and he used to spend his days reading the newspaper in front of his son’s dry-cleaning business on the ground floor. “He was doing mostly passport photographs at that time,” said Prébois. “He also had a contract with the local prison to shoot new inmates’ face and profiles just like in movies. His window display consisted of ornate frames with portraits inside and every morning he would hang a few outside for publicity.”
As the shop name suggested, the work produced by Chand’s studio was reflective of popular culture in the 1960s, which was inspired by Bollywood. Dressed in their best, subjects would pose in front of the camera, their awkwardness apparent in their stiff postures and straight, unsmiling faces. “These were simple people with simple lifestyles,” said Chand. “They would come to get themselves photographed; there was no need for smiling teethily like fools.”
Some would dress up—jackets, ties, and dark glasses for men, and a traditional Kashmiri costume for women—for the special occasion of being photographed. “I remember my surprise when Mr Chand told us that the subjects were regular people and not characters from a movie,” said Prébois. “One of the portraits of a man with a big moustache turned out to be the watchman for the bank next door who wanted to show his massive moustache to some relatives living far away; another one was of a milkman. And one was of a young man who wanted to send a nice picture as a keepsake to a future fiancée living in another city.”
In the documentary, Chand is seen showing the various styles that were commonly demanded by his customers—creating a photograph of one man in double role, or superimposing an image of a famous actor next to them, or being shown holding guns—which were all borrowed from Bollywood.
He leads his interviewer through rows of dry-cleaned saris on to the first floor of the shop where relics from his days as a photographer, such as a flower vase attached to a colourful stand, are still stored. “The customers needed something in the frame they could rest their arm on while striking a pose, or the women needed somewhere to sit while their husbands stood next to them,” says Chand, as he points to a small white chair with a fanned back. The small space also still has a dressing room where he would store combs and clips for the women.
An indispensable part of Chand’s studio was Rajinder Sharma, a painter living in Ajmer, much in demand for his Bollywood poster work. Chand talks fondly of Sharma in the film. “He could do anything with his paintbrush on a photograph,” he said. “Most of the times, he added details in the photograph after it had been shot. He could add a moustache on a person, or draw them holding guns, he could even make a blind person look like a sighted one with his paintbrush. Being photographed as a bandit was so popular at the time, where were we supposed to get the costume or the gun? He would draw everything later.”
Portraits to selfies
Like most other studios of the time, Chand’s work at the time relied heavily on portraits. “He never did a photo of a landscape for instance,” said Prébois. “The portrait genre today has obviously been revolutionised with smartphones. As a consequence, people’s attitude in front of the camera has changed. They’ve became more experienced as sitters. They don’t need the help of a photographer any longer to indicate and correct their pose. Being photographed by a professional in a studio was like experiencing a transformation through a succession of black boxes, through the studio itself and then through the camera, without knowing what the result would be. With today’s technique there’s no more mystery, no more surprise.”
By the end of 1990s, with the introduction of smaller cameras that were easier to use, Chand’s business was dwindling. He shut down the studio in the early 2000s, partly because of the scarce demand for his style of portraits and partly because he felt he was ready to retire. He let his son, whom he never pushed to pursue photography, take over as the breadwinner of the family.
“He slowly got less interested when colour photography came in,” said Prébois. “He knew that the way he used to do his trade was finished and he never intended to change.”
Mr Ram Chand Photographer will be on display at Hawa Mahal from Feb. 23 to March 4 as part of the JaipurPhoto festival.