West Bengal

Iconic photo studio closes

Print edition : July 22, 2016

The Bourne & Shepherd studio in Kolkata. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

"River view near Tanjore", taken in the 1860s.

The Elephant Tower near Fatehpur Sikri, undated.

Not only did Bourne & Shepherd capture and preserve history, the studio was a part of history itself.

FOR more than 170 years, Bourne & Shepherd, one of the oldest functioning photography studios in the world, witnessed and chronicled the changing times and the unfolding of history not just in Kolkata but all over India. It was one of the few repositories of visual documentation of the passage of time, and an important source of reference for historians and artistes, writers and film-makers, and researchers and dress-designers. In June, the studio shut down, bringing to an end an institution that had contributed to spreading images of Kolkata in its various stages of evolution all over the world. Many of these pictures are preserved and displayed in places like the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Smithsonian Museums in the United States, and the Cambridge University Library in the United Kingdom.

Not only did it capture and preserve history, the studio was a part of history itself, as many great figures of Indian history, including Rabindranath Tagore, often frequented the place. Satyajit Ray had a long and deeply personal relationship with the studio. According to his son, Sandip Ray, whenever Satyajit Ray made a “period film” he went to Bourne & Shepherd to consult its archives. “It was a relationship that went back many years. My father would go there for reference work and [he went there] while making period films like “Charulata” (1964), “Satranj ke Khiladi” (1977), etc. One big advantage at Bourne & Shepherd was that its classification of photographs was just magnificent, and whatever my father wanted to see, whether negatives or glass plates, would be provided for him instantly. He depended a lot on Bourne & Shepherd for visual reference, particularly for costumes and jewellery of a particular period,” Sandip Ray told Frontline. Satyajit Ray also had a deep interest in old Kolkata and the Raj period, which would often draw him to Bourne & Shepherd. “In those days, it was the National Library and Bourne & Shepherd that he mainly visited,” said Sandip Ray.

In 1991, a fire destroyed the archives of the studio. Sandip Ray remembers that his father was absolutely devastated by the news. “He was quite ill at that time, and when he got to know of the fire he was just heartbroken. We still have all the amazing prints we got from the studio,” said Sandip Ray.

The legendary photographer Nemai Ghosh, who worked closely with Satyajit Ray and was associated with Bourne & Shepherd since the early 1980s, recalls the day the fire broke out in the building. “It was Manikda [Satyajit Ray’s nickname] who called in the morning around 8 a.m. and told me to go there quickly. He was apprehensive because he knew all my negatives were kept there. I rushed to the studio, and, fortunately for me, my negatives were safe as the fire had broken out on the fourth floor and my stuff was on the third floor,” Ghosh told Frontline. Business had become slow over the years and only a limited work came its way, but the closure still came as a big blow to the octogenarian photographer. “I am in despair,” he said. “That such an institution should close down means a chapter in the world of photography is coming to an end,” said Ghosh.

What made Bourne & Shepherd such an invaluable source of reference was the huge range of subjects it covered and preserved. The internationally acclaimed film-maker Buddhadeb Dasgupta discovered this when making a documentary many years ago. “The film I was doing was on the folk/traditional form of art and how it had inspired the great painters of modern India. I do not think many people are aware of the excellent collection of pictures Bourne & Shepherd had amassed on paintings and installations. I will always be grateful for being allowed unlimited access to their archives,” said Dasgupta. The archives were open to anyone interested in old photographs.

The studio was also famous for its portraits of great personalities. One of its most famous pictures is that of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa sitting in meditation, taken in 1886 by a photographer of the studio. There is an interesting story behind the picture. When the photographer approached Ramakrishna to take his photograph, the sage turned his request down. As the disheartened photographer was about to leave, he was stopped by Swami Vivekananda, who told him to wait a while. Soon after, Ramakrishna sat in meditation and went into a trance. At the instance of Vivekananda, the photographer took a picture of the great saint. The picture was almost destroyed when the photographer accidentally dropped the glass plate and broke it. Fortunately, the portion which contained the image of Ramakrishna was intact, and the photographer cut around the portion that had broken. This accounts for the unique shape of the picture. Ramakrishna liked the photograph when it was shown to him later.

The long journey of Bourne & Shepherd can be traced to 1840 in Calcutta to a certain William Howard setting up a photography studio that year. In 1863, Samuel Bourne and Charles Shepherd, two British photographers, joined Howard, and the studio was renamed Howard, Bourne and Shepherd. After Howard left the business in 1863, the studio came to be known as Bourne & Shepherd. Though Bourne left permanently for England in 1870, and Shepherd parted ways with the company in 1885, the studio continued under the old name even though it changed hands a number of times. The currrent owner, at the time of closing down, was Jayant Gandhi. Talking to Frontline about what precipitated the closure, Gandhi said: “We were tenants of LIC, with whom we were locked in a court case. We lost the case and so had to close down…. There was really no other choice for us.”

In its heyday, in spite of stiff competition from rival studios such as Lala Deen Dayal & Sons (set up in the latter part of the 19th century in Hyderabad, Indore and Bombay), Bourne & Shepherd remained one of the most successful firms in the field, operating simultaneously from Calcutta, Shimla and Bombay. The firm was chosen as the official photographer for the Delhi Durbar held in 1911 and attended by King George V. Though this was the third durbar held in India under British rule to proclaim the king and queen of England as emperor and empress of India (the earlier two being held in 1877 and 1903), it was the first time that the sovereign attended it in person. In the ceremony that followed, Bourne & Shepherd was given the title “Kaiser-e-Hind”, which the firm continued to use in its letterhead until recently.

Though its archives had gone and technological obsolescence had reduced the once-proud institution to a sentimental relic, Bourne & Shepherd still represented not just excellence in its field but also a much-cherished link to history. In the end, even that link became just a memory. The great Bengali novelist Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherji) noted with a twinge of sadness: “We are not interested in giving Kolkata a museum of man where changing ways of life can be recorded and preserved.… Apparently nobody is interested in building a photographic library, as it requires a sense of history, a bit of time and, perhaps, these days, some money.”