The images are as beautiful as they are benevolent, much like the place and the people that are captured through the photographer’s lens. The lush landscapes of Kashmir are verdant, the pace bucolic, and the people look relatable and real — an achievement, considering how most of them were perhaps facing the camera for the first time. But such was the virtuosity of Ram Chandra Mehta, that each photograph retains its precise gaze decades after they were shot.

‘RC Mehta — Exploring the Familiar and the Iconic’ was showcased in Hyderabad to mark the 17th edition of Krishnakriti Festival of Arts and Culture. The exhibition is a retrospective of the photographic work of RC Mehta, comprising both his practice as a studio photographer for the family run Mahatta Studios, — the first Indian-run photography studio in Srinagar — as well as his personal work that covers his interests in the land, the people of Kashmir, and the significant political events that he witnessed during his lifetime.

There are a total of 123 photographs in the exhibition, covering a wide range of subjects, from the royalty of the region (Maharaja Hari Singh and son, Karan Singh), and the visits of Jawaharlal Nehru, to the magnificent Dal Lake, candid portraits of families, and fantastic visuals of landmarks like Nanga Parbhat and Shalimar Bagh.

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The origins

RC Mehta was the youngest of three brothers who, along with his brothers, had to flee from their hometown of Dalhousie at the age of six, owing to their parents’ murder over a property dispute. His eldest brother, AN Mehta (who was 18 years older) moved to Kashmir where his sister was based, and set up a photography studio in 1915. The office was (and still is) located in Residency Road, where it slowly began to carve a niche for its portraiture.

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RC Mehta’s grandson Hemant says that the decision to operate from a houseboat was in order to maximise resources. “With electricity being scare, the reflectors set up on the windows of the houseboat mirrored light from both water and sun,” he says. They used Kodak films, and though RC Mehta was largely self-taught, he improved his craft by referring to material from Cartier Press and Magnum, and succeeded in producing unique images.

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The technique

While photography arrived in Kashmir in the late 1860s, it was majorly done by European photographers. Therefore, RC Mehta was in a unique position, as he was one of the first local photographers to have documented the state, its landscapes and people. The studio was called ‘Mahatta’, as the British had difficulty pronouncing ‘Mehta’.

The brothers were pioneers in branding too, and they used to sell prints, slides and postcards of sceneries, which was a rarity back then. But more important was perhaps their documentation of people and political events, which helped the studio gain cult status. As Kashmir was a destination for both the rich and the royalty of India and abroad, many holiday-goers ended up at Mahatta Art Studio for their famous portraits.

Hemant puts down the success of the studio to the character of his grandfather, who was a keen innovator. “He was a chronicler of the time, as he was one of the few photographers of the time and was known for the quality of his output,” he states.

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He stresses on his grandfather’s technique of framing pictures, and points to an image of two men and a child, in which the latter is on the floor rather than in the arms of his parent, which used to be the norm then. He explains, “He would analyse the dynamics of a group and alter their positions. The women were encouraged to smile, which is again a departure from the norms of the day. He had a gift in bringing out the character of people through his images, which made him a legend.”

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The relevance of these images

“The intent of this show is not as much to provide a nostalgic view of a Kashmir from the past, but rather to examine, through RC Mehta's practice, both the familiar as well as the iconic imagery of the region, and how he was involved in shaping it,” says exhibition designer Adira Thekkuveettil.

Apart from the people, the images capture the stunning beauty of Khilanmarg and Fateh Kadal, the Chinar trees and houseboats which hold a strong nostalgic value for people across India. Hemant agrees and adds, “Kashmir has an emotive connect with people. When we exhibited these images in Delhi, people wept upon seeing those familiar landmarks. For those who have moved out of Kashmir, these are windows into how life was.”

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Thekkuveettil feels that RC Mehta's work has had a significant influence in the way Kashmir has been viewed over the course of the 20th century, both through photography as well as cinema. She adds: “His work, therefore becomes a cornerstone for those interested in understanding how photography played an important role both for the visitors to the Mahatta studio, as well as for a larger public through the wide proliferation of RC Mehta's work.”

With the photographs evoking a strong reaction from people from all walks of life, it is clear that RC Mehta’s work is as relevant today as it was when they were shot. With Kashmir remaining in the news perennially, these pictures are remnants of a quieter time in its history, when it indeed was paradise on earth.

— All photos by RC Mehta/Mahatta Archive, Srinagar Kashmir.

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