Daughter in laws of Lakshminarayan with his grandchildren. 75 years old photograph.

Daughter in laws of Lakshminarayan with his grandchildren. 75 years old photograph.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The First Professional Photographer

         Lakshminarayan Roychoudhury, member of the famous Sabarna Roychoudhury Zamindars of Kolkata was born into their Uttarpara clan in 1866. Uttarpara clan was started by Ratneshwar Roychoudhury when he purchased the northern tract of Chakbali in 1709 and established a new town named Uttarpara in Hooghly district of West Bengal. Lakshminarayan was the youngest of three brothers ; his elder brothers were Harinarayan and Baikunthanath. His parents were Jadunath and Matangini. Lalkshminarayan was the fifth generation from Ratneshwar. The palace built by Ratneshwar was named 'Sabarna Villa' on Choudhury Para Street. 'Sabarna Villa' has since been dismantled and modern day housing colonies built in its place after the members of the clan left 'Sabarna Villa' which had started crumbling at the end of 20th Century.
          The main source of income of the Sabarna zamindars had been revenue earned from the tract of land now known as greater Kolkata and a corpus of fund awarded to them by  emperors Akbar and Jehangir. The actual surname of the Bengali Brahmin family was Gangopadhyay or Ganguly, which was changed to Roychoudhury consequent upon the title being bestowed on them by the emperors. After the tract of land was handed over to East India Company in 1698 and  gradual depletion of the corpus due to increase in the number of descendants their financial health deteriorated. The situation was compounded by the fact that Sabarna zamindars took the side of Sirajuddaula during the battle of Plassey, as a result of which they fell from grace of the British rulers. Clever Bengali zamindars and businessmen who sided with the British, flourished whereas Sabarna zamindars were virtually decimated.
          Financially weak descendants of Ratneshwar started leaving Uttarpara one by one. Lakshminarayan, who married thirteen year old Apurvamayee Mukhopadhyay of Central Calcutta, also had to search for a living instead of depending on his father's meagre doles. His marriage had introduced him to the writers and artists of the Brahmo Samaj and got an opportunity to develop his skill of drawing sketches. During this period he met a representative of the Emir of Bahawalpur ( now in Pakistan ), who was quite impressed with his drawing skills and invited him to the emirate for drawing and painting portraits of members of the royal family. 
          Lakshminarayan reached Bahawalpur after six months and could impress the Emir with his skill ; it is said that a couple of Lakshminarayan's drawings later found  way to the postage stamps of the feudal kingdom. With introduction letter from the Emir, Lakshminarayan received assignments from the feudal lords of Chitral, Hunja, Phulra and Makrana. He also visited Kabul on invitation from court members of the Afghan King. Since his wife was pregnant with their first child, Lakshminarayan decided to settle in Lahore. 
          While searching for a job in Lahore, Lakshminarayan had the opportunity to get a job at John Lockwood Kipling's ( father of British colonial writer Rudyard Kipling ) studio. In 1875 John Lockwood Kipling had been appointed Principal of Mayo College of Arts, Lahore ( present day National College of Arts, Pakistan ); John Lockwood Kipling also became curator of Lahore museum. 
          Lakshminarayan was introduced to camera at John Lockwood Kipling's workplace and this changed the course of his life. Lakshminarayan had faced difficulties while drawing paintings of royals who disliked to be seated in front of him for a long time ; it was more difficult in case of ladies who observed purdah system, and Lakshminarayan was not quite competent to draw   just by a glimpse at a face. 
          The Daguerreotype camera was invented earlier in 1830. However only one image at a time could be made permanent by immersing it in salt without any scope for reprinting. In 1841 Fox Talbot invented calotype process. In this process a negative was made from which unlimited copies could be made. This nevertheless was on paper. In 1848 wet collodion process was created by Frederic Scot Archer. In this system a negative image on a transparent photographic medium could be made enabling the photographer to make multiple copies from one negative. During 1880s, the collodion process was replaced by gelatin dry plates -- glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin. 
          With the help from John Lockwood Kipling, Lakshminarayan  procured a Bellow-Lens camera and formally established his mobile photography-cum-painting business around 1885-1886. The brand given to his establishment was called Roychowdry & Co. He thus became the first Indian to start a professional photographic venture on the move ; he called himself a Parivrajak Chitrashilpi. He made Lahore the centre of his activities and kept on visiting royals with his camera. He shot photos and therefrom drew paintings. 
          By the time he was established as a roving businessman, his three sons, Pramod, Sushil and Ranjit had grown up and helped father in carrying Bellow-Lens camera, Tripod and Hood required for shooting. He had a darkroom at his residence. Ranjit was proficient in darkroom work. Lakshminarayan started getting assignments from other Maharaja, Raja, Raje, Deshmukh, Nabob, Baig, Khan families which allowed him to spread wings far and wide. 
          His family had also expanded with three more sons Anil, Sunil and Biswanath as well as a daughter Kamala. Lakshminarayan decided to send Apurvamayee , three younger sons and daughter to Uttarpara. His father had also sent a word through a messenger that he was going to divide Sabarna Villa among his three sons. Apurvamayee went to Uttarpara with the kids. During this period Lakshminarayan got his three elder sons married to Nandarani, Karuna and Amita respectively.
        When Darbhanga Maharaja of Bihar invited Lakshminarayan for shooting photos and painting portraits of members of his family. Lakshminarayan went to the Maharaja's Patna palace ( now known as Darbhanga building of Patna University ) along with his three sons, after winding up the Lahore establishment. Being a vegetarian Patna suited Lakshminarayan. He brought Apurvamayee and other children from Uttarpara as the assignment was for a longer duration, and he had started receiving assignments from other feudal landlords of Bihar.
         Unfortunately Lakshminarayan died at Patna in 1933. As a result the family faced great financial problem. They were not conversant with the ways their father approached clients and finalized deals. Apurvamayee's cousin brother Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay was a known writer and Assistant curator of Calcutta Museum. With a recommendation from him Pramod got the job of Keeper of Paintings and Sculpture at the Patna Museum. However his salary was not sufficient to run such a big family.
         The brothers decided to start Lakshminarayan's business by opening photographic shops in three centres. Sushil was sent to Chhapra in Bihar; Anil was sent to Uttarpara in Bengal and Ranjit stationed himself at Patna. All the three establishments carried the name of Lakshminarayan's brand called Roychowdry & Co. 
         Sushil and Anil failed to break even and had to wind up their ventures after a few years and return to Patna where Pramod had purchased a  house in a lower caste locality named Imlitala. The entire family started residing in this house. Apurvamayee decided to go back to Uttarpara's Sabarna Villa which had started to crumble due to neglect. 
                    Meanwhile, Ranjit had to shift his studio shop from the Ashok Rajpath to Bari Road as the owner from whom he had rented the Ashok Rajpath studio shop wanted him to vacate. Ranjit purchased a tract of land at Dariapur on Bari Road and built a studio shop. He did not train his two sons in Lakshminarayan's trade, who both became known during 1960s for their literary movement known as Hungryalism or Hungry Generation. 
         Ranjit died in 1991 and the studio shop was handed over to Ranjit's grandson Hridayesh who modernized the venture in line with present day mechanized and digital photography,  the pioneering venture, established by Lakshminarayan is not only the first, it is the oldest photographic studio shop still running today, after having completed more than 120 years.