Mumbai: Development to rob Girgaum of yet another photo studio

Development to rob Girgaum of yet another photo studio that was once the dugout of nationalist leaders

The group of men who surround 80-year-old Mahendra Jayantilal Sanghavi on a Tuesday evening are not politicians waiting to be immortalised through oil portraits. They are residents discussing the future of their homes with the owner of Thakurdwar's Vanguard Art and Photo Studio.

Mahendra Jayantilal Sanghavi (right) and his nephew Bharat (58) at Vanguard Studio. Pics/Suresh Karkera
Mahendra Jayantilal Sanghavi (right) and his nephew Bharat (58) at Vanguard Studio. Pics/Suresh Karkera

The discussion turns clamorous. A staffer looks at us waiting, and suggests, "Come tomorrow; today is not a good day." The 89-year-old studio, one of the few surviving in Mumbai, and certainly a proud member of the oldest club, readies to be lost to the new urban fiend of redevelopment. The project is currently under negotiation. Sanghavi is hopeful of opening shop once a 'tower' replaces his address of Sitaram Bhuvan, but it's unlikely to carry the same vibe. The mosaic-tiled floors, wood-finished cabins and carved false ceiling will be a thing of the past.

Called Excelsior Photo Enlarging Co. when it opened doors in 1927, its proprietor and Sanghavi's father Jayantilal Chhabildas, changed its name to Vanguard on the suggestion of friend Yusuf Meherally.

n the mid 90s, several prominent leaders dropped by at the Thakurdwar outpost, to get their portraits made
In the mid 90s, several prominent leaders dropped by at the Thakurdwar outpost, to get their portraits made

Like the socialist leader, famous for the Independence slogan Simon go back!, several prominent nationalist leaders dropped into the 2,000 sq ft studio, sitting around for hours while a team of photographers took pictures. Artists later made oil portraits of the same.

Today, the studio runs sans artists and photographers. Sanghavi, elder brother Harshvardan (85) and their children, shifted focus to printing ID and visiting cards, lamination and digital mixing of photographs, to keep the business afloat.

Indira Gandhi at the studio in 1959
Indira Gandhi at the studio in 1959

Jayantilal Chhabildas, who hailed from Morvi in Kat-hiawar, set up the studio against his family's wishes. "My father was fascinated with art. When my grandfather, a manager of a mill in Surat, learnt that his son wanted to turn entrepreneur, he asked him to leave the family home," recalls Sanghavi.

A photographer, Jayantilal's association with the Congress worked in his favour. "He was a social worker and freedom fighter, and enjoyed a rapport with political leaders."

The photograph of Subhash Chandra Bose that was taken at the studio, and a typed letter signed by him, where he expressed his satisfaction with the pictures taken
The photograph of Subhash Chandra Bose that was taken at the studio, and a typed letter signed by him, where he expressed his satisfaction with the pictures taken

On Jayantilal's insistence, national icons including Khan Abdul Gafar Khan and Babu Genu, Jawaharlal Nehru, wife Kamla and daughter Indira Gandhi also came by the studio to get themselves photographed.

But it's a picture of Subhash Chandra Bose that's close to Sanghavi's heart, and for a reason. The day Bose was photographed, the lane outside was echoing with,

"Netaji ki jai!" His supporters from Bombay had gathered outside the studio on that hot afternoon in the 1930s. A friend of the family warned Jayantilal of facing arrest by the British for encouraging frenzy. But he wasn't one to cower in the face of fear.

"The crowd outside was so large that we were forced to shut the doors. My father clicked a few photographs of Bose, including one in traditional Bengali attire."
A few months later, Bose left India. Sanghavi claims this may have been Bose's last photoshoot in the country.

Sanghavi pulls out a typed letter signed by Bose, expressing his satisfaction with the pictures taken.

It wasn't long before the Congress party hired Vanguard for all its official photography. "And each time a new president was elected, they arrived here for a shoot," Sanghavi, an apprentice to his father, remembers. Indira Gandhi also came in 1959, wearing an ivory cotton sari with a heavy border.

Vanguard's prominence is best gauged by the photo of Mahatma Gandhi that hangs in all government establishments. The picture, taken by one of the studio's photographers, was officially selected in 1949 by the then Government of Bombay for display at all government offices.

"The era of conventional photography is over," says Sanghavi remorsefully. "Your cell phones do the job now, so why have a photo studio?"

In 1984, Sanghavi set the wheels of change in motion by introducing new businesses. Demand for oil portraits was next to nil.

Now, if the studio dabbles in photography, it is on the special request of a privileged few associated with the Sanghavis for decades. And he refuses to put a price on the paintings. "Not a single one is up for sale," he says. And with most things around him not as they were, his political affiliation also seems to have worn out, when he says, "I am an Indian…that is my identity."

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