Snapshots of a legend

On what would have been his 61st birthday, the home of the late legendary photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha is far from still. The simple space resonates with loud opera music,  as the walls narrate the biography of a man, who had a particular passion for food, classical music, Hindi movies and the Windsors

Paint's peeling off the walls of the narrow passage that leads to a winding wooden staircase in the lobby of Gautam Rajadhyaksha's Hughes Road building, but the Opera posters nailed on either side are spotless. We follow the poster trail all the way up to Rajadhyaksha's second floor apartment, and even as we stop to examine a striking picture by the door that reads "Verdi's masterpiece, Otello" Opera music blares from the apartment. Given the circumstances, we're stunned.

 Surprising, candid images of stars adorn his home -- Salman Khan
yawning (fourth from left, top row) and the Mangeshkar sisters sharing a
laugh (fourth from left, second row) are warm and unpredictable

Inside, a small group sits silently before a garlanded picture of the photographer -- they're not family, but they are too. Had the photographer been around, they would have celebrated his birthday together today -- with a small feast and loud music -- in this very room. But now, dressed in a white kurta top and jeans, make-up maestro Mickey Contractor sits on one sofa, while Mangesh Chavarkar, Rajadhyaksha's long-time assistant shuffles about organising details and two men and a sari-clad lady -- other assistants --occupy another sofa, sombrely leafing through, Chehre, Rajadhyaksha's Marathi coffee-table book.

His chair stands empty in the room Rajadhyaksha practically lived in,
and also breathed his last. The frosted glass unwittingly worked as an
automatic light-filter to lend images a natural softness here.

"He loved Opera music," Contractor says, explaining why it's resounding through the house now. "That's how he would have started the day. Every year, on his birthday, the first thing he did in the morning was to slip a Maria Callas disc into his music system and sit back and take in the music." Chavarkar, who started working for Rajadhyaksha 17 years ago and even accompanied him on his last, two-month-long European holiday adds, "He used to say it was like oxygen to him and often drew parallels between Marathi Natya Sangeet and the Opera. He loved that a story could be told so beautifully in song."

Opera posters are nailed to the wall that faces the winding staircase in
Gautam Rajadhyaksha's Hughes Road residence Pics/ Bipin Kokate

His collection of signed photos of Opera singers adorn a wall -- he used
to write to them and they'd send a signed picture back which he'd frame
--overhead are pics of Lata and Asha who he held in equal esteem as
his heroes.

Telling us how he unwittingly became the star photographer's personal assistant, Chavarkar shares that Rajadhyaksha had literally grown up under the watchful eye of his maternal uncle. "My uncle then asked me to come and work here. Though I was employed as a helper at first, after a couple of years, he started teaching me about cameras and how to use lighting equipment," he says, admitting that he was initially awed by the sight of all the celebrities who used to drop by for shoots.

His book of photographs, Chehre

And they literally just dropped by unannounced at times, it would seem, when Contractor draws our attention to a picture of Jaya Bachchan and a very young Abhishek in an affectionate embrace. "We were shooting with Jaya, and Abhishek just dropped in, so we decided to take this shot," Contractor says.

Little could the 15-year-old boy from Gadab Village near Pen on the outskirts of the city have imagined that he may someday be showing off his photography skills, and yet today Chavarkar proudly shows us a picture he clicked at the Paris Opera House -- a picture of Rajadhyaksha, seated at the base of a gorgeous winding staircase. "Don't take pictures from predictable angles," he remembers Rajadhyaksha saying, "When you click a picture, it should have a distinctive quality -- it should be yours!"

The succinct lesson is encapsulated in diffused yet dramatic black and white pictures on walls outside the photographer's studio-room -- Salman Khan isn't flexing his muscles here, he's yawning like a tired schoolboy; Sachin Tendulkar isn't armed with a bat, but watching pensively as a cricket ball floats before him.

That Contractor's association with the photographer spans over three decades is evident in several of these photos that adorn the entrance of the modest room Rajadhyaksha practically lived in -- the room where he also breathed his last. Two country cottage-style wooden chairs are positioned in front of a plain white wall here.

During shoots, backdrop fabrics must have cascaded over the metal rod that now stands exposed overhead. Contractor shuts a window to demonstrate how its frosted glass unwittingly worked as an automatic light-filter to lend images a natural softness. A pane of glass that shattered was replaced with clear glass to allow for more light.

"The picture of Kajol with the towel-turban on her head outside was shot in front of this armoire," Contractor reveals, as Chavarkar shows us its contents -- an elaborate music system (with a record player even), loads of books and tapes that are a collectors' dream, like one that's marked Gulzar (Unreleased). 

Madhuri Dixit's large eyes stare at us from behind a giant earthen pot that's positioned near the kitchen, as we step out into the photograph-lined passage. Right opposite this poster that promoted Rajadhyaksha's book Faces is a giant poster of the opera Amadeus, under which stands a chest of drawers topped with a broken lamp (a relic from a dear aunt), a CD of Accordion music, a whole stack of Time magazines and DVD centered on the life of the British Monarchy.

"He was fascinated with the Queen and the Royal household -- what they ate... how they dined... their parties," Chavarkar reveals, sharing that he even picked up four more DVDs on their recent trip to England.

"He was so excited when we walked through Buckingham Palace," says Chavarkar, lighting up himself as he recalls Rajadhyaksha saying, "We're really fortunate to be able to walk through these rooms that have seen such history. To tread through the space that such great people have walked through, that is something!"
It's a sentiment we understand perfectly, now.

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