He is perhaps one of the living legends of portrait photography and a proud owner of one of the oldest studios in Mumbai city. Ranjit Madhvaji takes Moresha Benjamin through a nostalgic journey of photography as he experienced it.
Ranjit Madhavji comes from an era where digital photography did not exist at all. Photography back then, was entirely in black and white. Bromide prints, tungsten plates, Leica, Kodak Brownies define the time back then. The whole process of capturing an image and then developing the same had an immense artistic feel to it. He elaborates, “By using analogue cameras, not only did I develop immense discipline and patience but I also became aware of the nuances that are essential in making a good portrait.” He has been witness to events that transformed photography over the years. Madhavji still uses Nicholson’s Peerless Self-lending Colors, Winsor & Newton brushes, Kodak Flexichrome colours, which are no longer made. These remind you of the times when photographers took pictures and then artists accentuated the image with brushes on bromide prints. Madhavji also uses heavyset teak easels with photo-transparent paints and fine sable-hair brushes.
“There is no place for a digital camera in my studio”
A Revulsion for anything Digital
Ranjit Madhavji excels in portraiture and is also known for his meticulousness when it comes to conceptualising a frame. The stalwart abhors the digital medium. He says, “ I owe my success to film. It made me who I am today. I associate digital with manipulation. There is no place for a digital camera in my studio. Film is about using your imagination and brains. Digital is about using your fingers.” He has had an impressive list of clientele over the years. The Birlas, Tatas, British Viceroys and figures from royal families across the country and beyond have got their portraits shot at the Hamilton Studios. This not only makes him proud but also keeps him going. Madhavji, at the ‘young’ age of 81, still photographs people. He says, “People come and go but my skills as a photographer remain and are challenged each time I have a different subject to shoot.”
A Seasoned Perfectionist
When he is shooting a portrait he entirely loses himself in it. If he is in a disturbed frame of mind, he calms himself by taking pictures – all indicative of his love and dedication towards the medium. Madhavji has tried his luck not only in photography but also in sports and rifle shooting. He recalls his days at the Lion’s Club with a lot of fondness. He reminisces, “ When I was an active member of the Lion’s Club, we not only organized outings but also photo exhibitions. In those days, exhibitions were not popular but we did not give up. Photographs that I had taken also made it to exhibitions across the country.”
When questioned about his memorable assignments he recalls, “In 1962, the Birla group was celebrating its success. I do not exactly remember the occasion, but what I do remember is that the photographer that they had hired went absconding at the very last minute. They were in dire straits. I was called to rescue them. I was running a high fever. But I still gathered all my will power and shot for them. This was not only a memorable assignment but one which also tested my ability to work under any difficult circumstances.” The shoot was successful and Madhavji gained prominence in the photography circle in Mumbai over a period of time undertaking assignments with a lot enthusiasm. Later, his reputation as a professional portrait photographer spread across the country and he went on assignments from one city to another.
A Self-Taught Doyen
Madhavji has had no formal training in photography. He learnt everything on his own. He says with a lot enthusiasm, “I will continue to take photographs till my dying day.” He loves driving his car around the city. There is no hint of ageing except on his physical being. He feels as agile as he was when he held a camera in his hands for the first time.
This zealous photographer has a ‘nevergive- up’ approach to life. He has been associated with Hamilton Studios for more than forty years. Currently he is battling out the possession of the studios in court. He says, “I will take care of Hamilton till my last breath. The studio has not only given me an identity, but it has also provided an identity to the many faces that came to get their photograph taken. The studio is filled with memories of times that can never be brought back. The least I can do is to preserve the past of lives that have been a part of this studio from days gone by.” Hamilton has a plethora of images from times of yore. Within his studio, one cannot help but imagine what that point of time would have been like.
“People come and go but my skills as a photographer remain.”
Dreams, nostalgia, memories, moments… these are the things that come to mind when you think of black and white photography. This genre has been slowly diminishing due to the advent of the digital medium. But maestros like Ranjit Madhavji have kept this art alive. This field needs more personalities like him to save the legacy of black and white photography.
This review originally appeared in the June 2008 issue of Better Photography.
Tags: better photography, Great Masters, June 2008, Moresha Benjamin, Ranjit Madhavji