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Turning the lens on the most iconic camera made in India

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on August 20, 2021

Vintage beauty: At the Lokame Tharavadu (The world is one family) art event in Alappuzha, presented by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, an antique Vageeswari camera catches the eye   -  Photo Credit: Aditya Arya

A nostalgic look at the vintage Vageeswari camera invented in Alappuzha — back in focus as it is spotlighted at the ongoing Lokame Tharavadu art event

* At the spectacular Lokame Tharavadu (The world is one family) art event going on in Alappuzha, presented by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, where over 260 Malayali artists are exhibiting their works, at the antique Vageeswari camera catches the eye

* Anu John David says the camera was used widely not only by photographers, but also by forensic teams

* “I believe it is the most iconic camera made in India — not just because it broke the affordability barrier but also the numbers in which it was made,” says Aditya Arya

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In 1942, the young son of a musical instruments shop owner in the seaside town of Alappuzha invented a camera that revolutionised studio and field photography in India. The Vageeswari camera, as K Karunakaran named his affordable teak wood camera, was responsible for photography flourishing in the country as studios no longer had to wait for cameras to be shipped from foreign shores. The first camera he sold was priced at ₹250.

At the spectacular Lokame Tharavadu (The world is one family) art event going on in Alapuzzha, presented by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, where over 260 Malayali artists are exhibiting their works, an antique Vageeswari camera showcased at one of the halls catches the eye. Alongside it are stunning artistic landscapes of the seaside town shot with the camera. The Vageeswari exhibit is the brainchild of Anu John David, a 38-year-old photographer and designer from Karunagapally in Kollam, who is keenly interested in the history of Alappuzha. He has been enchanted by the story of the camera ever since he heard about it.

Back in time: Anu John David had 35 working images and he painstakingly hand-painted colour onto the black and white negatives to create evocative images of this heritage town

 

When Bose Krishnamachari, curator of Lokame Tharavadu, invited him to participate in the art show, David says, “I felt I should produce a body of work relating to Alappuzha’s history and landscape using the Vageeswari camera.” David’s mother was a school teacher in Alappuzha, and hence closely associated with the town. He passionately describes how Kuttanad, the region in which Alappuzha falls, was initially under the sea and the land was formed from flood deposits of rivers. The local legend, however, is that this was forest land destroyed by a raging wildfire. “If you see the nomenclature of many of the places here — Kainakari, Karimadi and so on — many of them have “kari” or charcoal in their names. The association with fire is strong,” says the self-taught artist.

Another facet of the seaside town that fascinated him was its intriguing Buddhist connection, which he explores through his images. David talks about Karumadi Kuttan, near the Amabalapuzha temple, where lies an 11th century Buddhist statue made of black granite. “Even the Dalai Lama visited the site,” says David.

Alappuzha’s rich Portuguese, Dutch and British history as well as the labour movement have been documented a bit, but much of its strong history is yet to be written about, says David. The British invited settlers from other parts of India such as Gujaratis to come here. Through the ages, Alappuzha witnessed huge cultural changes. “There was constant migration from one culture to another. That’s why I have called my work Exodus,” he explains.

But while he had a clear idea about his project, executing it was more challenging than he thought.

The first struggle for David was to lay his hands on a working model of the camera. Those who had it were antique collectors and they were reluctant to part with it. Other studio owners charged a high sum for it. He finally managed to get it for a reasonable amount. The second challenge was to work with film slides and he had only two of those. Only four images per outing were possible, after which he had to develop the film and reload them — a time consuming process. “I faced light leakage from the film slides and had to fix it. Since I was travelling to capture images, I had to set up a dark room on the go, mostly in wash rooms,” says David.

Finally, he had 35 working images and he chose 16 of them for the exhibition. He has painstakingly hand-painted colour onto the black and white negatives to create truly evocative images of this heritage town.

David was helped in his journey by Kochi based photographer KR Boney, who mentored him in “reverse colouring”, the technique that he has used in his work. Boney’s works are also on display at Lokame Tharavadu, wherein he has spotlighted studio photographers. Through his interesting portraits of studio photographers, who usually remain behind the viewfinder of the camera, he has paid homage to his brethren.

Interestingly, in Gurugram, where photographer and visual historian Aditya Arya has set up the unique Museo Camera Centre for Photographic Arts (a photography museum), there are quite a number of Vageeswari cameras. Arya, who is passionate about the history of photography and camera equipment, conducts workshops and says these cameras are extensively used in the workshops.

“I believe it is the most iconic camera made in India — not just because it broke the affordability barrier but also the numbers in which it was made,” says Arya. A Studio based in Alappuzha had approached Karunakaran’s father, Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, a part time musician and adept at fixing veenas and harmoniums to repair the bellows of his foreign made field camera. Bhagavathar refused but young Karunakaran took up the challenge. He ended up making his own field camera, with every part except the lens made by him. In 1945, he set up a shop at Mullackal in Alappuzha and started manufacturing the cameras. Soon there was a queue of studio owners.

David who spoke to Karunakaran’s son and travelled through southern India meeting many studio owners while researching the camera describes how it was widely used not only by photographers, but also by forensic teams. It was sold in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

But why is it called the Vageeswari camera? David who spoke to Karunakaran’s son conjectures that since the family worked a lot with the veena, they named it after their favourite deity Saraswati.

Published on August 19, 2021

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