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Lone Gray Wolf: Black & White’s Last Stand

The scene is a sidewalk just beyond the rather overdone Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, and the camera in question is less instrument, more living fossil — built by the Carl Zeiss company in 1860, it is nearly three times as old as independent India.

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The process itself was more enervating than the average CT scan.

“Madam, you talk far too much. Now when I say, you’re going to have to sit still and keep quiet,” he sternly told my girlfriend. To her remarkable credit, she somehow managed to keep a smile in place while I half-glowered at the man.

“Ready,” he theatrically called out, and with considerable flourish took the lens-cap off his camera. “Now don’t move. It’d be even better if you didn’t breathe.”

So there we sat arm in arm on a rickety bench, smiling uneasily and turning redder with each passing second. Thirty seconds later, Surinder, our photographer, clipped “Okay” and capped the lens. “You may breathe now.”

The scene is a sidewalk just beyond the rather overdone Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, and the camera in question is less instrument, more living fossil — built by the Carl Zeiss company in 1860, it is nearly three times as old as independent India. The camera itself has clearly lost most of its youthful good-looks; a leg of its tripod is broken in two places and held together by a makeshift splint, and a rope is girded all the way around the body of the contraption seemingly to keep it from falling apart. But rest assured, its insides are in robust working health.

“This will take a few minutes and I might have to do some readjusting, so keep sitting on the bench,” Surinder says as he gets to work on the development process. He keeps his fixer solution in a red plastic bucket on the sidewalk next to him, and the hollow of the camera’s boxy interiors serve as a dark room.

Surinder is also part of the enterprise’s advertising and retail wing: a gang of digital-SLR wielding Chinese tourists stand and take pictures of the tableau that is the two of us sitting on the bench in front of his camera, and Surinder tries heroically to make another sale, “Hundred year old camera! 1860 camera! Photo hundred rupees only!”

As is tragically common, the tourists click their photographs and walk away. Business, we are told, though not going swimmingly, isn’t all that that bad either. On an average he takes between 10 to 15 pictures a day, mostly of bemused tourists or young couples. But Surinder tells us this sort of camera is most certainly a species in decline: “There used to be another chap taking pictures with one in front of the Albert Hall museum. He wrapped things up a few years ago. Now to my knowledge this is the last such camera in the city.”

“Yeah, it looks ok. You can get up now,” he calls out to us with his head hidden inside the back of the camera. We begin rummaging through some of his older photos and find one of the camera parked next to Bollywood movie star Akshay Kumar. When quizzed about it, he nonchalantly recalls how he was called on to have the camera feature in the 2007 film Bhool Bhoolaiya.

Surinder is left undazzled by fame: “It was just a movie, they took their shot, I was paid my money, and I left. But as I was leaving I thought this’d make for a nice picture”

His eyes light up though when he begins talking about some of the more remarkable pictures he’s taken in the past. Once in the late 1960s, a family of six showed up to be photographed with their spanking new Premier Padmini and insisted that the entire length of the car feature in the picture. To compensate for the camera’s fixed focal range, Surinder had to have the car parked on the sidewalk and placed his camera a quarter of the way into the road.

“Setting up that shot took quite a while. I must have blocked traffic for a good 15 minutes. But then of course there was much less traffic back then,” he says.

Having fished a beedi out of his shirt pocket, his reminiscing continues: “Then there was this phase in the 1970s when everyone wanted to take pictures with their dogs. It was dreadful. Dogs made for terrible subjects. It’s almost impossible to have them sit still for the 30-odd seconds a photo requires. They always tended to start barking at a monkey or another dog or something, and then their faces came out as one big blur.”

He reaches back into the camera for our picture now. Apparently unpleased, he hands it to us, muttering, “Which, sadly has happened in your case as well. I told you not to move.”

My girlfriend hadn’t been able to hold her breath long enough, which has turned her face into a blurred, egg-shaped distortion of itself. I myself must have twitched ever so slightly, and have come out cross-eyed and saddle nosed. But somehow, despite the obvious technical imperfections, we find it impossible to be unhappy with what we hold in our hands.

The coaster-sized picture brims with an unmistakable sense of ceremony. It is a vibrant, soulful thing and almost immediately I understand why connoisseurs swear by the majesty of black and white photography.

In parting we asked him a familiar question, had anyone offered to buy the camera, and did he ever seriously consider any of the bids?

“I get offers all the time. Mostly tourists, Americans in particular. They say sell it to us for five or 10 lakh rupees. Ridiculous offers, really.”

“So what would be an offer you would consider sensible, which you might consider?”

The setting sun gilds everything a rich orange and sets the bazaar’s sandstone walls aglow. Still quite overcome by the romance inherent in even an imperfect specimen of his craft, we cheesily hope he will say something on the lines of the camera being too priceless to sell, or it being impossible to put a price on the joy he knew he brought into people’s lives.

He says probably the next best thing: “I make them an offer they have to refuse — One Crore Rupees ($200,000)!”

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Life | Travel | Bigger India | June 2012 | Magazine

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Surinder’s camera featured in the 2007 film Bhool Bhoolaiya, parked beside Akshay Kumar.

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