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A riveting history of Bombay Talkies -- in photographs

IANS  |  Panaji 

A still indicating the scale of an indoor set from the 1938 movie "Vachan"; another of rehearsing the cabaret number "Yeh itni badi mehfil aur ik dil, kisko doon"; and, among many others, leaning on a piano in a dramatic scene from the film "Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai". All these photographs from the black and white era are being exhibited for the first time to trace the roots of cinema's boom.

Titled "A Cinematic Exhibition: and Talkies", the display at the ongoing Serendipity Arts Festival here tells a story of a world across worlds, a story of cultural convergence that brought together and Calcutta, and

It draws from the photographic archives of Josef Wirsching, a German cinematographer, who made his workplace and home. Wirsching's archive comprises behind-the-scenes photographs of cast and crew, production and publicity stills that give us unprecedented access to the aesthetic decisions and creative communities that were vital to filmmaking in colonial

"Cinema happened like a boom," says Wirsching's grandson, named after his grandfather, from whose personal archives he has spent the last decade reproducing the photographs.

"But not many people realise or know that there was an entire movement behind it. It took many years to bring cinema into the consciousness of not only the viewers but also those who later became filmmakers," added Josef, who is now based in

Elaborating on the rise of cinema in the country, he said artists at the turn of the 20th century actively sought to "forge an aesthetic language that could be simultaneously nationalist as well as modern". Frustrated with European academic canons and colonialist stereotypes, they turned to local artistic genealogies and avant-grade movements outside the

Germany, with its long history of Indological enquiry, became an ally in this endeavour. Thus, Rabindranath Tagore visited in the 1920s, and, in turn, the Austrian art historian, Stella Kramrisch, joined Shantiniketan and organised a landmark "Bauhaus" exhibition in (1922).

This two-way cultural exchange was keenly felt in cinema; the success of "Oriental" films such as "Sumurun" (1920) and "The Tomb" (1921) was met with Indian filmmakers approaching German studios for technical training. had already popularised German chromolithographic techniques and European approaches to the body through his mass-produced calendar art. In the 1920s, intrepid nationalist filmmakers such as Dadasaheb Phalke, and self-consciously reworked these influences with inspiration from passionate German plays.

And then came the Second World War, which led to a different kind of exchange when Jewish exiles such as and moved to and entered the local film scene. Studio, inaugurated in 1934, embodied the cultural dynamism of the moment in its core team led by Himanshu Rai, Franz Osten, Josef Wirsching, and

Josef added that played a foundational role in defining India's commercial film form, producing some of the most iconic musicals of the era which focused on urgent issues of social reform. These films borrowed freely from East and West to create a new aesthetic that many called "Swadeshi modernism" -- a heady pastiche that begs us to question easy notions of Indian and foreign, traditional and experimental.

Josef Wirsching's artistic imagination infused with the psychological depth and stylistic ethos of German Expressionism. At the same time, his photographic archive gestures towards another meaning of what we call "cinematic" -- a term that is commonly used to describe moments in reality that seem elevated beyond the everyday. In these images displayed at the ongoing exhibition, we see the interaction of individuals, objects and environments, framed by a vision that captures the beauty and drama beneath the surface of the laborious work of film production.

Josef said that he had contacted the and the National Film Archive of (NFAI), but to little avail. A camera used by his grandfather, rare and vintage in its own right, along with negatives of many films, were given to the Film and Television Institute of India, all of which have disappeared now. His endeavour found momentum after he met the organisers of Serendipity, where the photographs are first exhibited.

The Wirsching Family -- Wolfgang Peter Wirsching, Rosamma and their sons Josef and -- are the only heirs of (1903-1967) and are currently the owners of his entire personal photographic collection consisting of more than 6,000 images and the largest collection of photographic evidence of the start of the Indian film industry, which has now acquired the "Bollywood" moniker.

(Saket Suman is in at the invitation of the organisers of the Serendipity Arts Festival. He can be contacted at



(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, December 20 2017. 11:46 IST