Delhi-based photo studio Mahatta and Co is documenting India's past, present and future

This Central Delhi-based photo studio is one of India’s oldest surviving establishments, keeping the art of photography alive

author_img Anjani Chadha Published :  20th June 2022 12:31 PM   |   Published :   |  20th June 2022 12:31 PM
Mahatta photographers

The third and fourth generation of Mahatta photographers

When you enter the studio of Mahatta & Co—located in M Block, Connaught Place (CP)—the first thing you would probably see is a large black and white photograph. This picture—it was clicked in the early 1940s—features a queue of British citizens outside Mahatta & Co. Srinagar outlet, each carrying a camera. The story behind this photograph is equally interesting. It was clicked during the Second World War, a time when the Mahatta’s family had to impose wartime rationing of film rolls—an individual could only buy one film roll, often loaded into their camera in the studio—in order to prevent hoarding and black marketing of these products. “This picture is very special to me. It shows Britishers lined outside an Indian establishment at a time when they were also destroying our country,” explains Arjun Mahatta, a fourth-generation photographer at Mahatta Photographers, an establishment with a 107-year-old legacy. 
 
The Mahattas, and particularly their Studio, have witnessed several historical accounts. After withstanding the tides of time, one of India’s longest-surviving studios still stands strong.
 
Continuing a legacy 
In the early decades of the 20th Century, Amar Nath Mehta, a young boy from Gurdaspur district of (undivided) Punjab, fled his hometown and moved to Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh—his maternal grandparents resided here. It was a feud with relatives that had claimed the life of his parents. After moving to the colonial hill station, Mehta got a chance to experiment with a camera with the help of army professionals residing nearby. Photography was slowly making a mark in the subcontinent and Mehta had found his accompaniment.  
 
In a few years, the self-taught photographer moved to Srinagar. Here, on a houseboat in the Jhelum river, the first establishment of the Mahatta’s—an anglicised version of Mehta—came about. After decades of working from Kashmir and later expanding to cities such as Rawalpindi, Sialkot, and Murree (all in Pakistan), this family has played a pivotal role in documenting the history of the country, specifically the Valley. They were also the royal photographers for Raja Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. One can only imagine how intricately their studio has documented the length and breadth of Kashmir. This history has been chronicled in Picturing a Century: Mahatta Studio and the History of Indian Photography, 1915-2015, an archival book that was published by the family in the Studio’s centenary year (2015).
 
“That was a good time for the Mahattas,” comments Pavan Mahatta, Madan Mahatta'a son, while showing us the book. “Anytime is a good time,” laughs Arjun. A portrait of Amar Nath Mehta is framed near the desk. On the other side, a small assortment from Pavan's collection of 900 cameras are displayed in a glass case. 
 
Years of archival and documentation 
By 1948, Mahattas had set up their Connaught Place studio, the same place where they stand today. After Amar Nath Mehta, it was Madan Mahatta, a pioneer of architectural photography, who took their business forward. Madan extensively documented the urbanisation of New Delhi. He also introduced the negative-to-positive colour printing—a craft he had learnt in Surrey, England—making Mahatta & Co the first studio to do so in India. His office is stacked with negatives (of photographs clicked by Madan) most of which is a documentation of the several decades that have passed by.
 
Apart from industrial photographs, matrimonial photography was at the core of the Mahattas’s studio work in Delhi. An unforgettable portrait of the celebrated actor-director Raj Kapoor, playing the dholak [Indian hand drum], is still well-preserved in their archives. “It was said that kisi ladki ki shaadi na hui hoti toh Mahatta’s se photo khichwao, ho jayegi [if marriage is not on the cards for a girl, get a picture clicked by the Mahatmas and it will happen]” recounts Pavan. “A lot of people come and tell us ‘Humari shaadi ki photos aapke studio me khichi gayi thi [our wedding photographs have been clicked at your studio]’. This way, we have shot generations of the same family,” adds Arjun. 
 
The third generation—Pavan along with his brother Pankaj Mahatta—and the fourth generation—Arjun and Sanaj—still harbour the same devotion towards the art of photography. “I was very clear from the beginning that I don't want this to end with the third generation, I wanted this to go further,” shares Arjun. 
 
Changing times
The impact of technology has been tough on the photography industry. Several studios have shut down, unable to retain their business. In 2015, the Mahattas, too, shut their retail outlet. “Customers would spend hours looking at cameras and when the time would come to pay, they'd say that it is available for less on Amazon," shares Arjun, explaining how physical stores can't compete with e-commerce platforms. 
 
However, evolving with time has been the core principle for the Mahattas. “You have to change with time. I think you can't wait around for people to come to you, you'll have to go out there," explains Arjun. From weddings to products, fashion, and more, the Mahattas do it all. 
 
The family, especially Pavan, are hoarders of memories. You will find stacks of albums in their office since every family trip is converted into a photo album. "Print survives!," concludes Pavan as he shows us the photo book created after their recent trip to Kashmir.

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