It all began in an innocuous way.
It was a hot day in May in 1940.The world was, for several months, at war for the second time in the 20th century. The Quit India movement was a good two years away in the future and the independence of the country as yet a dream.
Thirty years old then Pranlal Patel, a Rolie-flex camera slung on the shoulder, set out for Kashmir, long hailed as paradise on the earth, with a return ticket from Ahmedabad to Sri-nagar via Rawalpindi. Inclusive of the bus-fare from Rawalpindi to Srinagar, the cost per head was a meagre Rs.42.5. But the young man was not from among the rich in search of pleasure.
He was setting out to take photographs, in an era when a camera was a rare thing to pos-sess, more a hobby of the wealthy or the crazy. A Kodak 120 reel cost 14 annas. Like the anna coins, the 120 film too is extinct now.
Every thing clicked in the life of today’ camera wizard Pranlal Patel, internationally reputed pictorialist. His speciality has been his mastery over Black & White photography. So much so that the photographs taken during that trip continue to fascinate even today, not only because of their excellence but as a collection of historic value. It effectively brings out how much more enchanting was Kashmir just 70 years ago and what damage man has done to it. In the process the photographs become an irrefutable witness to an era for posterity, far more trustworthy than words.
Even among the true photo-artists, Pranlal Patel, an Ahmedabad (Gujarat)-based lens man is the rarest of the rare. Active in photography for nearly 70 years, Pranlal in 2010 was in the 101st year of life, and still kicking and CLICKING. He still wields a camera, walks up-right, though slowly, and has most of his slightly yellowish teeth intact and in service.
The 99-year-old Patel is still in photography. He took it up as a hobby in 1932. In no time it became a supplementary profession and then got transformed into a life-long passion.
A representative collection of his vintage photographs at Jaipur (Rajsthan), in March, 2009, has been described by Pranlal as fulfillment of a long standing desire. “I have no desire left unfulfilled. Now, I am waiting for one way travel on God’s train.” He brushed aside protests from listeners. “I have had everything in life.”
He has dozens of albums and has held numerous exhibitions. His work was not just superb photography but also a social, visual history. Most of them though exhibited are yet to be published.
He is curious like a child, and again like an innocent small boy, gets easily absorbed into the present moment, here and now. Behind his spectacles, eyes sparkle with abundant in-terest in life. He is equally comfortable with the children, youngsters.
He is a simple person, though certainly not a simpleton, frugal with words but fluent in thought. What keeps him fit and full of zest for living? “I don’t know. I do nothing special. I eat normal Gujarati vegetarian meal, do padmasan, and eat five pieces of dates with ghee (clarified butter) every morning and drink milk. I regard myself as an eternal student, keen to learn newer things. I have many Gurus; even my grandson Piyush is my Guru because he taught me a lot about harnessing computer as a tool for photography. Among my clos-est friends are two noted young photographers, awards-winner Vivek Desai and Ketan Modi, who runs a highly-acclaimed photography training institution. Vivek is also my dear-est disciple. I am proud of today’s young generation”.
Pranlal is very popular among young professionals and helps them a lot by patiently pass-ing on insights obtained through decades of photography. His photography has been mostly based on box cameras of the old genre and in black and white, without using the flash. He firmly believes that “the real art of photography does not reside in gadgets, whether a flash light or the modern-day digital cameras. It does not rely solely on composi-tion, light and shade, but on the eyes and fingers. There must be a perfect co-ordination between the eyes and the fingers. In turn the eyes and fingers must harmonise with the camera in such a way that they know simultaneously what unusual feature is there in the subject, compose in a way that highlights that feature and decide in unison when to press the shutter. They must become one with each other and the subject being clicked.”
Alas, there is no device in the market that can achieve this feat for the lesser mortals! Those who have learnt the secret are photo-artists, the Masters. The rest are slaves of technology.
Of course, people like Pranlal can throw some hints. “You should think before you pick up the camera to shoot. Most of us do not contemplate in advance. Before going in for shoot-ing, you should think of some unusual angle, slant, and symbolism, colours, light and shadow in the composition. Almost every thing has been previously photographed. You have to bring out something that is different.”
He says “It doe not mean that you should ignore day-to-day life. It means you must learn to concentrate in the present assignment, not just take a fleeting interest in the subject of the assignment but view it as the most important thing in your life, here and now. Your mind should neither wander hither and thither nor waver. You must see what is in front of you at the present moment. Nothing else matters. This cannot be accomplished overnight. You have to practise endlessly. Like a music maker you must never stop doing the riyaz all your life.”
Pranlal quotes an example. Ages ago, he was on an assignment to create a photo portfolio of the new building of a local company. Says he, “I could have done it in two or three weeks. But I took nearly six months. I would go to the building, sit in different places outside and study the light and shade and the time. I wanted to find out the timing and season when there would be best sunlight. I did not even open my camera bag till I had decided that in the forenoon of May there would be ideal light. The portfolio was much appreciated.”
Pranlal’s photographs are not only technically perfect, underlining the superb sense of composition, and skilful management of light and shade but also are so evocative that they seem to have an enduring life of their own, vibrant, vivacious and memorable.
Another trait that separates Pranlal in the rare category is the habit of preserving and main-taining his thousands of negative, repository of images of over 70 years. Together they are a massive documentation of India’s march of progress and social change.
These images also seem to re-assert the prime position black and white pictures occupied in the art of photography, notwithstanding the rapid advancement of colour photography. There is a stream of defeatism about black and white photography these days and in many cities there are no studios that will wash, develop and print black and white pictures.
Pranlal Patel’s pictures celebrate the glory of black and white, re-inforcing what W.D. Wright, a British professor of Applied Optics at the Imperial College of Science & Technol-ogy, observed years ago. He contended that the black and white photographs may appear to the viewers more real than the colour pictures. Over the years, viewers have learned to supply their own colour information to a black and white photograph.” You may get closer to reality with colour but the closer you get the more obvious it becomes that it is a picture, (and) not the real thing.”
Pranlal is reluctant to take to colour photography. He thinks that the black and white photo-graphs have an immense capacity for subtlety, rich sensitivity of detail and graphic urgency. To him it also is a stimulating mental challenge to transform every colour around us into two shades of black and white only and bring a still photograph to life.
Pranlal has, over the past seven decades of photography, earned a reputation as a pictori-alist, extending far beyond the shores of India, bagging awards and prizes. His work has been published in international media for decades. Pranlal has an innate sense of history. For example, take his photographs of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad over the past half a century. They instantly tell you a visual story of the degradation of the ecology. Or take the images of a typical wedding in the Patel farming community over past half century. They highlight subtle changes in customs and attire, attitudes and behaviour over time.
At his age most people would be bed-ridden, if alive. Countless others would have hung up their professional equipment and sunk into senility. Pranlal continues to explore life with the same sense of wonder and romance that first made him give up his job as a teacher in a municipal primary school in Ahmedabad.
Born on January 1, 1910, Pranlal has come up the hard way in life, but the harshness has left no trace on his personality. A man with a largish nose, twinkling eyes hidden behind a 25 per cent darkness goggles glasses, he is quick to smile and enthuse. Hailing originally from Jamnagar district, he traces his family home now to Kolki in Upleta taluka of Saurash-tra. He grew up at his maternal uncle’s place, working in Ahmedabad in petty jobs to help family. “I have sold peanuts, soda and lemon soft drinks near Victor cinema hall in Fuvara in olden days, delivered at home newspapers of Ahmedabad, which included at one time Gandhiji’s Navjivan. Remembering his childhood, Pranlal says: “I was, however, a bright boy from the very beginning, who was made to jump several years from Standard I in pri-mary school. I passed my vernacular final (which was not the final year of secondary stage in education but of the primary stage, but in those days, something of a qualification).I be-came a primary school teacher, with an initial salary of Rs.15 supplemented with one or two tuitions”
But, recalls Pranlal, he had an urge to do something different, something so well that peo-ple will remember him by.” This yearning brought me in contact with photography in 1932 when I acquired a box camera. In the early years, I learnt a lot from Col.Balwant Bhatt, an ace photographer himself.” He does not make any claims, but Pranlal must have had a gift from birth to identify visuals, compose them automatically and then capture them exactly as he saw them with his mind’s eye. He began to work as a free-lance photographer even while continuing as a primary teacher. A meticulous diary-keeper, Pranlal noted in 1937 that he had made an income Rs.710 in that year from photography. In 1938, the figure jumped to Rs.1, 241. Not much by today’s standards, but as Pranlal notes humorously: “The rupee was not so cheap in those days.”
Remembers Pranlal: “I was debating with myself if I should continue as a teacher or do something else that will make me stand out. I had been going to Ravishankar Raval’s school of fine arts,dabbling in painting to see if that was going to be my way of life. I think it was around 1938-39 that I got an opportunity to see an exhibition of photographs of Kash-mir, taken by a famous photographer, Abid Saiyed of Palanpur. My mind was, as if, under a spell. I too wanted to capture in the photo frame the beautiful landscapes, natural scenes, snow-capped mountains, the serene life style and lovely Kashmiri people.”
Abid was a sympathetic listener to the young man and not only gave him all the dope, but also a promise to speak to Kodak people to give him film at the dealers’ rate. Three friends from Mumbai and Ahmedabad agreed to join Pranlal on the safari to Kashmir. Before they undertook the trip, something happened that landed Pranlal full-time into photography.
Recalls Pranlal: “One day I was taking class III in Madalpur municipal school, teaching Gu-jarati to the pupils, A camera, as usual hung on the back of my chair. An Inspector arrived from the municipal administrative office for his annual inspection, saw my Super Iconta, and asked: ‘What is this?’ I told him politely it was a camera, to which the inspector retorted loudly,’ If you are so fond of photography and the camera, then open a studio on Gandhi Road. Such things are no good for an ideal teacher.’ I was stunned.”
Pranlal could not sleep that night. The next morning, he went to his principal to tell him he was quitting. “I was rattled by the rude remark. I had the confidence that I would be able to eke out a living from photography, my obsession. Already I was making Rs.200 a month as side income from photography at social and official functions. It was a good enough amount to live on.”
The young man who went to Srinagar in May, 1940, via Rawalpindi, spent a month in the valley. “Among other things, at Srinagar we stayed in a shikara for three days, paying a princely sum Rs.2.50 a day, and then moved on.” The days would be spent photographing the heart-stopping beauty of the Kashmiri landscape and people.
They went to Pahelgam and to remote villages, mountainsides, water-falls and everywhere in the beautiful valley. “One could buy a hundred apricots for six annas. Oh, it was like liv-ing in paradise for a month.”
Says Pranlal :”What all we saw can never be described in words or even in pictures. It was an era of black and white photography, and of mechanical cameras, with no modern tech-nology available to aid a lens man. I took pictures of Kashmir with these limitations, expos-ing fifty rolls of XX film. These rolls were washed locally in Srinagar.On return to Ahmeda-bad, we started enlarging them into prints. Friends and others who saw them exclaimed words like Oh! Wow! Fantastic! Wonderful! Exra-ordinary! Balwant Bhatt helped and guided me into sending these pictures to national and international magazines, earning me a name as a pictorialist.That was a golden period, those days 30 days in Kashmir. I yearn to go Kashmir once more, and capture as it looks today.”
The lucky break into photography via Kashmir made the life for Pranlal. Scores of journals in and outside the country carried his pictures every now and then. He never looked back, becoming more and more famous as a pictorialist with rare sensitivity and dedication, trav-elling widely in the country, capturing events like the wedding in the Mysore Royal family in the fifties and that in the Royal family of Rajkot. He has a huge collection of rare pictures of cities, famines, landscapes and people.
Among the prized possessions are huge albums of photographs of the Iron Man of India, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel whose every visit to Ahmedabad whose mayor he earlier had been captured on his camera. His presence was so routine that when Junagadh princely State was liberated from the Nawab’s rule and merged in the Union, Pranlal was present in the city when Sardar arrived. He hailed Pranlal, saying,” if I come, you too should. Do you keep tracking me? Is it not so?” Pranlal did a lot of photography during the Quit India movement. His pictures were lapped up by photo-hungry newspapers and magazine. His earnings shot up and he filed his Income Tax returns in 1947, to the great surprise of offi-cials. It was hard to imagine so much income from free-lance photography only in those days. Nearly 90 per cent of the surplus was used in buying newer equipment.
Along with still photography, he also undertook movie photography. He filmed extensively and in 1947 and 1957, recorded some 16,000 feet of movie of a religious head’s pilgrimage of Vrajbhoomi; it was so massive that the divine personality got tired by merely watching it. But the photographer was indefatigable.
His wife Damayanti, their son, Anand, their two daughters and grand-children all have taken to photography. Damayanti was a self-made darkroom wizard who could rescue very fuzzy photographs by dexterously doing washing, developing and printing. She was a sort of record-keeper too.
Some 40 years ago when Queen Elizabeth came to Ahmedabad, the state government wanted a hundred copies of an old photograph of the Somnath temple. Pranlal was not at home when Manubhai Trivedi, an information official, came to their studio-cum-residence. Damayanti requested the officer to wait for five minutes during which she spotted the me-ticulously preserved negative. Within ten more minutes she came out of the darkroom with a perfect print of the old picture. The government got a hundred copies before morning. She passed away a few years ago, leaving a big void in Pranlal’s life. His grandson looks after the library work now
Today,Pranlal looks back with great satisfaction that he will leave behind foot-prints in the form of photographic prints to remember him by. But he has by no means called it a day. Tell him of a topic and his eyes shine. A routine day, till recently, began at 5.30 in the morn-ing when he would wake up. After breakfast at 9 a m he would set out on foot from his home for his studio, a distance of two kilometres. If the son and others were not using the studio, he would get into the darkroom, working up to 1 in the afternoon.
He helps youngsters willingly in learning photography, emphasing the importance of com-position, painstaking care for capturing details, judging light correctly and developing and printing the photographs meticulously.
He advocates working not only with body and mind, but also heart. His own involvement in the work is such that he does not remember time or gets tired or hungry when engrossed in photography. Some years ago the Kankaria lake in Ahmedabad had a huge fish population dying out suddenly and the stench of the dead fish floating in the water was awful. But Pranlal took out a boat, taking his own time in capturing just one memorable picture of the dead fish panned by empty boats on either side of the frame. He never noticed the stink, as he clicked away till he had captured the right composition.
He says “photography is something done with the eye, the mind and the heart. The equip-ment, though important, is secondary. With the best equipment in the world, you could turn up with lousy pictures. With primitive equipment but alert mind, you could transform ordi-nary things into photographs of extra-ordinary charm and beauty.”
He generally does not use a flash and none of his memorable pictures has had the use of artificial lights. He believes that the real fruits of good photography cannot be reaped unless one takes an equal amount of care in washing, developing and printing. His one-liner to aspiring photographers is “Do not compromise, either in quality, costs or time de-voted in getting a good picture. Quality always remains in the vogue, whatever the era, whatever the state of technological development. It was so yesterday, it is so today, and will be so tomorrow and the day after too.”
It is all pure Zen of photography.