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Desi D: Story of the Indian Middle Class’ First ‘Bachat’ Camera   

From being a luxury, how the camera became a household item that captured so many of our memories over the years.

4 min read

(This is Episode 1 of Desi D, a video series about the desi way of living, told the desi way!)

P.S: You can follow me a.k.a Desi D at Facebook/DivyaniRattanpal)


Editing and Graphics: Prashant Chauhan
Camera: Athar Rathar; Shiv Kumar Maurya
Series’ Creatives Courtesy: Muhammad Usaid; Harsh Sahani
Inputs Courtesy: Aditya Vij

A few days back, I happened to look at my family’s old photos. Sigh, my younger self looked so silly, what with all those frilly frocks! But when I took my complaint to my dadi, she told me, “Shukar manao, at least you have photos of your childhood. I have none!”.

She is right. Did you know that years ago, getting yourself clicked was a luxury, which was out of reach for families like us!

For the sake of simplicity, let’s call our class, the Maruti Class. The not-too-rich-not-too-poor-but-somewhere-in-the-middle people that got their first ownership of a four-wheeler courtesy the Maruti 800. Before the 800, the only mode of transport that existed for desi middle class families like ours was a scooter, the floorboard of which was exclusively reserved for the bacha log to stand on! But all that changed in the 1980s, all thanks to the indigenous car.

And just like the Maruti made cars affordable for the aam aadmi a.k.a mango people, one special camera and multiple cool technological advancements democratised clicking pictures for us.

Thoda Rewind Maarte Hain

Photography came to India in the nineteenth century courtesy colonialism. You see, the angrez administrators needed to document our imaarats (monuments) and even us, their hapless colonial subjects.

Following the footsteps of the British, the royalty too took to it. Because badey shaukh.

That’s not all. Many of the princely states had their own high-profile photographers. Raja Deen Dayal, for instance, who was one of India’s earliest known photographers, was the court photographer at the Nizam’s court in Hyderabad. And it’s not just these photographers; apparently, the royalty would sometimes even fly to London to get themselves clicked! Badey logon ki badi baatein.

I mean, just look at Patiala’s Rani Yashoda Devi posing like a true royal at the Vandyk studios in London.

From being a luxury, how the camera became a household item that captured so many of our memories over the years.
Rani Yashoda Devi of Patiala, Vandyk Studios, London, c.1930s
(Photo Courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bangalore/Tasveer)

By the early 20th century, desi photo studios were beginning to open up, but once again, their patrons were restricted to the suit boot officers of the sarkaar. Elsewhere in the world, though, the camera industry was seeing a big revolution. Courtesy, the Kodak ‘Brownie’, the baap of all affordable cameras, costing just $1!

Launched in 1900, the Brownie gave people six shots at a price of just 40 cents.

From being a luxury, how the camera became a household item that captured so many of our memories over the years.
An early poster of the Kodak Brownie.

But back here in India, Kodak was still marketing its camera solely to the elite, phoren-travelling Indian, according to this kitaab.

Sigh! It would take many more decades for the desi middle class to be able to afford its own camera. Meanwhile, a whole generation of people was growing up with little visual memories to own.

Aditya Vij, a Delhi-based vintage collector who has a collection of more than six hundred cameras, tells us more

In the 1930s, a bellow camera came at close to Rs 100. And this was a time when people would get their ration in 8 aana! (8 aana was 50 paisa). 
Aditya Vij, Vintage Collector

So a middle class person could afford a camera technically, but only if they sold a kidney!

By 1950s, companies like Kodak and Aqfa were aggressively selling cameras in India (like the Agfa Click III, priced at 100 Rupees). The price range of these cameras was between Rs 67-180. By now, the common man (or woman) was earning a salary of 16-18 Rupees. So you had to save for 6-8 months to be able to buy your own camera.
Aditya Vij, Vintage Collector

The fifties was also the decade when several Japanese camera makers like Canon, Yashica, and Nikon entered the Indian market. And more players meant more competitive pricing.

Over the years, with the badalti haalat of our economy and with it, that of its middle class, the cameras came into our pockets without much disturbance to the monthly budget. Bittu, his mom and dad could now click photos on their family holidays to Kullu Manali and Kashmir!

The camera may have been within reach now, but mind you, you could still not click photos with abandon. Families only bought a few film rolls a year, and had to go to the local photo studio to get each roll developed.

Earlier, the reels could only give you 8, 10 or 12 photographs…. Then they started coming at 24… and finally by the 1980s, the number became 36.
Aditya Vij, Collector

And while it may have been a big number in the 1980s, today 36 photos seem so little. especially considering how an average selfie session equal 15-20 photos!

And then came the 90s, when Kodak came out with its Rs 999 camera! 
Aditya Vij, Collector

The 90s were truly the decade when everyone got a camera. Those were the days of the Hot Shot and the Kodak 999, and a newly opened and flourishing economy post the 1991 liberalisation. This was the time when many of today’s millennials were either just born, or were in their teens. And our parents were going overboard, clicking and documenting us diligently from being adorable children to awkward adults!

But the real revolution, both in terms of the number of photos we could click, and the ease with which we could see and share them, came only in the 2000s through the cellphone-cameras. When we no longer had to depend on photo studios to process our memories. And could simply transfer them using a simple USB wire.

Also selfie junkies like me no longer had the jhanjhat of the camera roll quickly getting full!


(This story was first published on 21 July 2018. It is being republished today to mark the occasion of World Photography Day on 19 August 2018.)

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Topics:  India   Middle Class   Desi D 

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