In the late 1960s, the Bengali novelist and poet Sunil Gangopadhyay was working on his epic novel Sei Samay (“Those Days”), set during the Bengal Renaissance. To create an accurate setting for this period drama, the young writer had no choice but to come to Esplanade in the heart of the city, to the Bourne & Shepherd studio, established in 1863. Here he used the archive of photographs, some of them by the photographic pioneers of that era, to understand what 19th-century Bengal looked and felt like.
Gangopadhyay was not alone in benefiting from this repository. In its golden years Bourne & Shepherd was, as it is today, closely linked with the creative greats of Bengal. The list of honour opens with Rabindranath Tagore and continues through Satyajit Ray and his son Sandip Ray.
Though the list of its beneficiaries and patrons is long, Bourne & Shepherd’s roster of current clients is not. What is reportedly the oldest surviving photographic studio in the world now has few customers. The building in which it is located, appropriately named Photographe, is owned by Life Insurance Corporation (LIC).
Bourne & Shepherd’s historic archive would have been much larger than it now is if a fire in 1991 had not claimed its treasure of photographs. “It was the fire which changed the fate of the studio,” says co-owner Jayant Gandhi. “We lost an enormous collection of pictures of Bengali greats like Vivekananda and Tagore. The building was also damaged in the fire and LIC is trying to revive it. But whatever we have lost is a culture and history of more than a century. We tried to replace the lost pictures from [collections in] different parts of the world, but it did not work out.”
Gandhi and his friend K J Ajmera acquired the studio in 1964. He still remembers meeting Satyajit Ray when the director came to research the wardrobe style of royal families to recreate it for his film Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). “We feel happy that, even four decades later, when his son Sandip Ray made Gorosthaney Sabdhan , he came here to see the studio, to create a similar set,” says Gandhi. He adds that “Now we don’t have many clients to click photographs in this era of digital tyranny. We are surviving because of sales of Sony, Canon, Nikon cameras, etc. But we will preserve this piece of history.”
Prem Shankar is an employee. “I am working here for last 20 years,” he says, “but now we are not finding clients at all. There was a time when stars like Moon Moon Sen came to the studio.” He shows off a large portrait of Tagore that survived the inferno.
In 1863, Samuel Bourne and William Howard started this studio under the name Howard and Bourne, at first in Simla, the winter capital of British India. Around the same time, Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson opened a similar studio in Agra, callng it Shepherd and Robertson. When, later, Robertson came to Calcutta to join Bourne, Howard and Bourne became Howard, Bourne and Shepherd. This was trimmed to Bourne & Shepherd after Howard left India in 1866.
The studio changed hands more than once during the 1900s, but its charm and brand value survive. “I followed portraits from the studio to recreate the [Bengal] Renaissance era for Sei Samay, in which Tagore and Swami Vivekananda are two of the main protagonists,” says Gangopadhyay. “The studio lost all those collections in the fire. If something is there the government should take steps to retrieve the valuable treasures. [Bourne & Shepherd] was the favourite studio for not just cultural greats but also for kings, princes and rich men in the entire country.”
According to owner Gandhi, some pictures from the studio are preserved in the Cambridge University Library, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Geographic Society’s Image Collection and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. “We are trying our best to preserve all the history left with us,” he says. “Studio photography may fade out one day, but I am sure that Bourne & Shepherd will remain a brand.”