Bourne & Shepherd clicks shut the era of photo studio

Kolkata, June 20 (IANS) Crumbling and at the end of its tether in the digital age, one of the world’s longest-running photographic studio ‘Bourne and Shepherd’ silently downed its shutters here after 176 years of existence.

Despite the importance of the landmark edifice, its present owner laments the “lack of interest” to restore the heritage structure.

An online petition has come up urging the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India — which now owns the building housing the studio — to “take charge and convert the building into a museum”.

But Jayant Gandhi, the present owner of the studio, feels either the central or the state government has to take the initiative so that people can still get a chance to experience a slice of Indian history.

“There are too many reasons for its closure (in April this year) but one of the reasons was a legal battle. It was a rented property and there was a case going on for a long period and we lost that. We have already given the possession this year in April,” Gandhi told IANS.

“They (the LIC) are not interested. It is very difficult to make them understand. Nobody takes interest in preserving anything and now digital has come so photography is almost dying,” Gandhi, who co-owns the studio with K.J. Ajmer, elaborated.

The four-storeyed British Raj-era structure in central Kolkata’s Esplanade is a reminder of the studio’s inception that began some time in 1840.

According to Tasveer Arts Gallery which recently organised a multi-city exhibition on ‘Bourne & Shepherd: Figures In Time’, Samuel Bourne, one of the most famous of the early European commercial photographers, arrived in India in 1836.

Initially partnering with William Howard, Bourne set up the Howard & Bourne studio in Shimla.

They were joined by Charles Shepherd, and with the departure of William Howard, the studio dropped his name to become Bourne & Shepherd.

In 1866, in alignment with a growing culture of studio-photography, the Bourne & Shepherd establishment set up a branch in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

It had agencies all over India, and outlets in London and Paris at the height of its glory.

The prestigious studio was patronised heavily by royalty, nobility, Europeans, Indians and a mushrooming upper middle class. It was frequented by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Oscar winner Satyajit Ray.

Among its iconic oeuvre of photographs is the 1886 portrait of Shri Ramakrishna, an albumen print of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II while he was in exile under British rule in 1858 and a portrait of author Rudyard Kipling.

In 1911, the studio was commissioned to document the ‘Delhi Durbar’ held to commemorate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary as Emperor and Empress of India, where the photographers were given the title, ‘Kaiser-e-Hind’ which was still used by the firm as part of its official letterhead.

A fire in 1991 ravaged the building, destroying much of its treasured possessions.

“At the point of time we are not selling anything. We are not selling old photographs because there is misuse. All the equipment that was there has been shifted. Now no one has the space for all this stuff,” Gandhi said.

“It will take some time before we can go back and see how we can preserve and people can have a look. The initiative has to come from the central government or state government,” added Gandhi.

The Cambridge University Library, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Geographic Society’s Image Collection and the Smithsonian Institution house some of the studio’s earlier works.

–IANS

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