A surprise photograph from India

Posted: September 20, 2012 - 15:53 , by Deepali Dewan

Mystery portrait in the ROM's collection, later revealed to be Sunder Shyam Chadha in the film “Chhottii Babhi,” 1951

Painted photograph sent by the Friendship Force of Nashik, Dilip Kumar in the film "Ram Aur Shyam," 1967

In 2011, I curated the exhibit Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs. An artefact in that exhibit was a real challenge to identify. It was a painted photographic portrait of a man from the mid 20th century (see above, top image). I knew it was an actor from the Bollywood film industry, as the notations and stamps on the back of the image indicated. But identifying exactly who it was, turned out to be difficult. Considering that India produces more than 1000 movies annually, it was like looking for a needle in a really big haystack!

So with research that left me feeling frustrated and unsatisfied, I reluctantly concluded the mystery portrait was the mega-star Dilip Kumar in the film “Ram Aur Shyam” from 1967. The date seemed to be consistent with the style of the portrait and the handsome features seemed to fit the actor. No sooner than the exhibit was up, one of my interns discovered that the portrait was the actor Sunder Shyam Chadha instead, taken during his last full film. Lesser known than Dilip Kumar today, Chadha was considered the most handsome actor of his time. But he hadn’t had the chance to develop into mega stardom because he died tragically during the making of “Shabistan” in 1951 at the young age of 31. Interestingly, the portrait was likely hand-coloured after his death and circulated as a memorial image, as was often done to photographs of deceased individuals in India.

Now that we knew the correct information, the label had to be changed! Yet, despite our best efforts, the new label did not materialize. But there is a silver lining to this tale. A few days before the exhibit was supposed to close, a group of delegates with the Friendship Force of Nashik, a city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, visited the museum. They recognized the error and, less than a month later, we received in the mail a package containing a  professionally hand-coloured portrait of Dilip Kumar in the film “Ram Aur Shyam” (see above, bottom image). While it would have been wonderful to be able to swap the images, the exhibit had closed by then. And yet still, I was thrilled to see this new painted photograph. They had also sent the name of the artist who had painted it: Mr. Vinayak Takalkar of Mumbai. To know the identity of an artist, from a region that didn’t often preserve artists’ names in the pre-modern era, is important and exciting information to a curator!

While it is usually better to contact a curator before sending something in the mail, in this case it was a welcome surprise.