Time travel through vintage cameras and photo archives of an exiled Nepalese King

by Ekatmata Sharma
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Archivist and photographer Aditya Arya and Isha Singh Sawhney take us back in time through a collection of vintage cameras and extensive repository of images from the Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archives.
A bunch of Sepia photographs are strewn across the carpeted floor and next to it is a big brown box of another hundreds of black and white photographs. Isha Singh Sawhney excitedly picks up a glass photo frame with three portraits of a single lady in it. “The lady in these photographs is my great-grandmother Bhuvan Kumari Devi, her father was Prime Minister Dev Shamsher Rana who was exiled from Nepal. He moved to India and settled in Mussoorie with his family,” shares, Isha Singh Sawhney, the great-granddaughter of Bhuvan Kumari Devi, who has collected these archival photographs and restored it with the help of ace photographer and archivist Aditya Arya.
With a keen interest in archival history, both Arya and Sawhney are putting together a showcase of archival pictures and vintage cameras on the occasion of World Photography Day. Titled “Nirvasanama: Portraits of a Life in Exile through Changing Viewfinders”, the exhibition will showcase vintage cameras by The Museo Camera and turn-of-the-century images from the Bhuvan Kumari Devi Archive.

The process of collecting and restoring them was quite a journey for both of them. She recalls, “These pictures were lying in all states of disarray in our attic, boxes and sacks in the 150 year old house where my grandparents lived in, hundreds of photographs dating back to the end of the 19th century were almost destroyed. We can never know today what stopped them from being burnt, but these photographs passed down from my great grandmother Bhuvan Kumari Devi to her daughter who is my grandmother and then to my mother. Around 2012, after both her parents passed away, my mother attempted a mammoth clean-up and out came out with these photographs. We sat and poured over them. Further away from the times they depicted they seemed much more than junk to be burned. We grew up looking at these beautiful pictures and wondering who these people were and the kind of lives they lived. They were proof of a life lived in the early part of the 20th century. They were tomes of letters, accounts, travel records, dowry lists and photographs dating back to the end of the 19th century. They were history.” “But, the pictures were in a terrible state. In 2014 when I was wondering what to do with these pictures and I met Aditya who was archiving old photographs at his foundation ‘The India Photo Archive’. He came to Dehradun and looked at the pictures. We carried these pictures to Gurugram and started working on them. Digitising 800 photographs was a tedious job, as it took couple of years for it,” tells Sawhney.

Being a veteran photographer since last 40 years, Arya has studied history and always being intrigued by equipments. “That is why I loved looking at old pictures and decipher them. For me the interest lies in connecting technology with pictures and then understanding photography. And to that I created the museum of photography because this is the history of photography,” says Arya, who has a collection of over 1500 vintage cameras and is coming up with a museum of cameras by 2019. He adds, “The title of the exhibition is “Nirvasanama: Portraits of a Life in Exile through Changing Viewfinders”. In earlier days, there were viewfinders in the cameras through which you could see the subject. Today, there is no viewfinder because you see the image after clicking, you don’t see the viewfinder. Earlier the photographers actually pre-visualized the images in their mind.”

Through an extensive repository of images from the BKD Archives, the exhibition tries to recreate life from the turn-of-the-century up until mid-century. Forge a lens into a time in history filled with glamour and intrigue. And through a close visual anthropological study, hoping to recreate some complexities of that time, spin narratives about costume, jewellery and entertainment customs, and bring to life these fascinating people, with a retelling of anecdotes and idiosyncrasies. Sawhney says, “The photographs are from the turn of the century, from their days in Nepal till about the 40s in India. It’s a beautiful collection of images that show life in those times, their parties, travels, their body language and their clothes. It’s interesting to see in these photographs that with time how clothes also evolved. They are costume type in voluminous pyjamas, hair done in crazy hairdos and lots of jewellery. And slowly perhaps something that came with life in exile. They were staying in a different country, where did not have their courtly duties, so you can see their clothes and hair became casual and minimal jewellery. May be they lost it or sold it off. There was a lot of western influence. A lot of cross dressing happened, a lot of women wore turbans. The women were very liberal at that time. They did all the things men did. Whereas in other families women were living in parda system. You can see photography evolved from formal studios to smaller cameras that people could take out during travel. The backdrop went from fake forest studios to actual forests.” People would be able to have sneak peek into the photographs, postcards, records, letters and notes dating back over a century that provides a rare glimpse into the life of Nepal’s most liberal Prime Minister Dev Shamsher Rana – his short rule, his journey to India and subsequently takes up narrative in the twenties and thirties when his seven children lived in Mussoorie, in Fairlawn Castle.

Arya adds, “As a photographer, who comes from analogue times, it always intrigues me, what kind of technology was used in taking these pictures. That’s what interests me when I see the archives. Photography is the only art in the world, that has a very deep link with the craft and the craft has been evolving. Today the craft is in your phone.”
“The main idea is to put it to the public, so that researchers, scholars etc can access it. We have tried to tell the journey of Dev Shamsher Rana. We have tried to comment on the different types of techniques in photography. We have also created some studio setups, as we were fascinated by the kind of backdrops that were used during those times to come and have a real experience of the studio from that period. In the exhibition, Aditya’s collection of 150 cameras is planned in a chrolonological manner, so you can see the cameras that were used for certain photographs and how the camera also evolved,” concludes Sawhney.

Exhibition – Nirvasanama: Portraits of a life in Exile through changing Viewfinders
Dates: 19th – 24th August 2018
Venue: Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi
Time: 10am to 8pm
Photo Credit: BKD Archives and India Photo Archive Foundation

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