Lala Narain Prasad received his first camera in year 1938. It was a box camera. And he was just 14.
Over the next four decades, that gift remained Prasad’s constant companion, as he roamed the streets of Delhi, clicking incessantly to feed his obsession with photography. Each image was lovingly captioned, dated and archived at his residence, Haveli Haider Quli, in Chandni Chowk – and that’s where they remained until Surajit Sarkar, an associate professor at Ambedkar University, came across them in 2009.
The Delhi in those 1,200 sepia images was fascinating.
Prasad died in 2016 at the age of 96. But in his last years, he helped Ambedkar University’s Centre for Community Knowledge, an organisation that aims to preserve India’s living communities and their cultural heritage, take over his archive and digitise them.
Around 120 images from the Narain Prasad Collection are on display at Camera Dilli Ka – A Delhi Photo Archive 1880-1980, an exhibition at the India International Centre in Delhi.
“He had seen Delhi through such a long period that he was history himself,” said Ranjani Prasad, archives manager with the Centre for Community Knowledge, who kick-started the process of digitising Prasad’s images. “It was a slow process of recollection and narration, but he had shown incredible foresight by preserving them with labels and proper cataloguing of his material.”
The collection, according to Sarkar, is unique because it gives a people-centric view of the metropolis in its growing years – it draws attention to how city spaces were used and remembered. “It went beyond the history by way of photographs of monuments or landscapes that we generally see,” said Sarkar.
Another reason the archive is special is because it retells forgotten stories. “For example, we have a picture of wedding that took place in, what we think is probably Roshnara Baag,” said Sarkar. “It reflects the life of the English-speaking elite of Delhi at the time – how they dressed, their little rituals.”
The exhibit does include photographs of Delhi’s monument – one cannot capture the essence of Delhi without its heritage – but the images set themselves apart in how these structures nudge their way into the frame. The Safdarjang Tomb can be seen in distance in a picture of an airplane at the Safdarjang Airport. Humayun’s Tomb features in an image as the site of transition camps for Muslim refugees on their way to Pakistan. Even a photograph of the Qutab Minar actually gives the view from the top of the monument (which was closed to visitors for decades ago).
According to Sarkar, Prasad’s passion for photography was noticed by his sister Sarla Sharma, who took part in the Quit India Movement. “She asked him to accompany her to some of her meetings and rallies as an ‘unofficial’ photographer. This made him privy to some extremely intrinsic moments in history and brought him in close proximity to influential leaders.”
Camera Dilli Ka has been loosely organised according to themes: children playing instruments, changing modes of transport, images of Okhla when it was a popular picnic spot, the early days of flying, and images of the once-clean Yamuna in which people boated and swam.
The mood of the moment reflects in each photograph – the demureness of a bride wearing flowers, the joy at playing hopscotch, the pride of the first person from Delhi who got a private pilot’s licence.
The exhibition, dominantly showcasing Prasad’s work, also includes around 20 images of the city curated from the collections of Fozan Ali Ahmed, Jan Friese and from the archives of travellers, such as Mexican journalist Gossi Soto who visited in the 1950s, and some colour photographs by Christophe Fanjat from as recently as the 1980s.
Camera Dilli Ka – A Delhi Photo Archive 1880-1980 was on show at the India International Centre, Delhi, till December 29, 2016.