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India's very first camera museum, set up in a basement in Gurgaon, is a labour of love for its enthusiastic owner
Agroup of Japanese corporate executives walking out looks elated. "It's something that's so up their street, " says Aditya Arya, who has just shown the visitors around his camera museum - the first in India. "Anything to do with technology, not necessarily the latest, gives them a clear high, " he says, smiling.
Walk into Arya's world of cameras - housed in the basement of his sprawling Gurgaon home - and you go back in time. "In this age of digital and phone cameras, it's difficult for people to imagine how many of these worked, " states Arya (who gives all his visitors a personalised tour), pointing to a Kodak Century studio camera dating back to the 1870s. "This was among the first of its kind - made soon after photography was invented in the mid-1800 s, " he says. But for his effort, cameras like old Voigtlanders, or the hand-held stereo viewers that show 3-D images from early last century would have been lost. "When I see people react to these rare beauties, I know my effort has been worthwhile, " he says.
As you admire the 4-foot high Kodak Century studio camera, Arya talks about how he chanced on it. "A friend had spotted it at a kabariwala's and sent me an image of it. Within minutes, I zipped down and, despite it being in a dusty, dilapidated condition, picked it up. It's a real treasure, " he smiles. Although he has no clue as to its history, he thinks it was perhaps used by a studio in Calcutta. "I found a box inside that had the studio name on it. Of course, I did try asking the kabariwala but he couldn't be bothered with giving me such details. This guy was just too happy to get a price for it, " he laughs.
Arya's obsession with photography started soon after he joined college in 1977. "St Stephen's had a very professional photography society, with two fully functional dark rooms complete with enlargers, papers, chemicals, etc. Photography was promoted not just as an activity but as an art form, " recalls the 53-year-old. Growing up in the time he did, says Arya, was one of his generation's biggest advantages. "We had the time to pursue the things we were interested in. For kids like me, our cameras were our world. We looked after them with our lives - because they were expensive. Film too didn't come cheap, so each frame was thoughtfully, sparingly used. And if something went wrong with it, we'd figure a way out. Remember how the owners of Fiats and Ambassadors would, more often than not, dedicate Sunday mornings to their cars? I applied the same zest to my cameras. "
Post-college, Arya got busy selling pictures to finance his passion. From working in films (" doing still photography for them" ) like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Chashme Buddoor and Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho, to getting assignments from magazines and travelling, Arya's done it all. "It was tough, but one of the best things about photography is that it takes you to all the nooks and crannies of the world. "
Work on his museum began four years ago. Today, it houses around 400 cameras (with more coming in) together with photo albums donated by families who felt they'd be better looked after here, and the photo archives of Arya's famous uncle, Kulwant Roy, a news photographer from the 1930s to '70s.
Arya's put up cameras collected from around the world - from Japan, Switzerland, Germany, America, England and France. Indeed, Arya's hunt for exclusive pieces would often take him to international auctions besides of course, flea markets and small town shops. "A lot of old cameras have been gifted to me by family members who have no use for them, " he says, pointing to an Agfa piece brought in that morning by an ex-Army officer's daughter. "I have the smallest camera in the world, a Minox - one of them was used in the Watergate scandal. It was gifted to me by Vijay Tankha, a professor of philosophy at Delhi University. "
There have also been people like ace photographer Pradeep Dasgupta, elder brother of Prabuddha Dasgupta, who gave away all his cameras to Arya just before he shut shop. "I've been lucky, a lot of equipment has come to me that way, " says Arya.
Arya also remembers an old camera shop run by a sardar gentleman, Sardool Singh, in Delhi's Bhogal area in the 1960-70 s. "He would make copies of Deardoff cameras and sell them in the US for $100 each. I'd picked up one such copy from him in the 1990s. When I went back looking for him some years ago, I was told he'd passed on - I really regret not having interviewed him at length and documenting his work, " he rues.
With much of the museum self-financed, help is sometimes forthcoming. Arya points to corporate executives who are keen photographers and appreciate the work he's doing. "Students also call with offers to help catalogue and organise the collection, " says Arya who, these days, has a French student, Arthur Crestani, come in every weekend to help him out. "They understand that these are markers of both history and technology - and treat them with the respect that each of these cameras deserves. "
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