Tikam Chand wheels up on a rusty bicycle, navigates past a tangle of pedestrians, the odd beggar, a pile of garbage and kiosks selling Coke in battered green bottles, and unties a 50-pound camera that took its first photograph around the time President Lincoln was assassinated.
It’s been doing daily duty ever since, much of it on this stretch of sidewalk in front of the maharaja’s palace -- used first by Chand’s grandfather, and then by his father and now, for the last three decades, by Chand.
“Digital cameras can never give such joy,” the 42-year-old photographer explains. “Nor will those new cameras survive getting dropped on the ground all the time.”
(Nor are digital cameras susceptible to termites. Fortunately, his camera is made of a type of hardwood that is difficult for insects to penetrate.)
Show the least bit of encouragement and Chand, garbed in Western dress, a large black mustache and an earnest manner, expounds on its personality, history and quirks, the image of the god Krishna he keeps inside the camera to bless his pictures and profits.
The quaint if rather unwieldy anachronism befits a country that seems torn between two centuries. It’s a land of engineering graduates, information technology companies and an ambitious space program. They coexist alongside human-powered rickshaws, ancient typewriters that clack outside courthouses for petitioners trying to meet complex case-filing requirements, and government offices where ribbon-bound files, some untouched for decades, are stacked 6 feet high beneath slowly rotating ceiling fans.
It’s all a rather charming throwback, unless you’re trying to get something done and your file was last seen in 1973.
This is a country whose most famous car, the Ambassador, based on Britain’s 1948 Morris Oxford technology, saw few changes over five decades of production, only grudgingly adding power brakes a few years ago, and even then in only a few models.
Nowadays, however, roads are clogged with the gamut of global brands, with India’s Tata Motors this year unveiling the Nano, billed as the world’s cheapest car at about $2,500.
“That’s the contradiction of India,” says Pranav N. Desai, a professor and regional editor of the World Review of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development. “From World War II-era Ambassadors to the Tata Nano.”
For Chand, the older the better.
“Computerization has made us lazy,” he said. “Clicking pictures used to be an art. Now the thinking has disappeared and all they do is click a mouse.”
With a flourish, Chand sets about serving his first customer of the day. Surender Tanwar, 28, a house painter, needs an ID picture for an insurance document. He pays 50 cents for a 1-inch-square black-and-white shot. “The others charge too much,” he says, “so I come here often when I need a photo.”
Actually, most studios charge less than a dollar for a dozen color shots, but maybe Tanwar hasn’t checked this decade. Nor does the phrase “time is money” figure much in Chand’s marketing plan, though the nostalgia stirred by seeing his camera at work is -- as the MasterCard ads put it -- priceless.
At one point, Chand says, this box camera was called the “minute camera,” perhaps a reference to its then-lightning-fast speed. A Google search of the term doesn’t pull up much, but then Google is so tomorrow. Watching Tanwar’s photo develop suggests that a more apt name might be the “15-minute camera.”
Chand sits Tanwar down on a chair nearly as old as the camera, combs his hair and wipes the sweat off his face. Then he adjusts the camera’s focus by sliding the ancient lens back and forth along a track before ducking beneath a large piece of fabric at the back to slide the photo paper behind a glass plate.
Snapping the image involves nothing as humdrum as a button. Instead, Chand scoots around to the front and removes the lens cap for one or two seconds before scooting back under the coverings, sticking his hand in tubes made of a bluejeans leg to shift the paper from developing chemicals into the fixer, then into a plastic bucket to rinse off the chemicals.
If that sounds complicated, you haven’t heard the half of it. All this work has produced a negative. He repeats the whole process to produce a positive.
For those interested, he also offers a “deluxe service.” By rubbing chemicals on the negative, he can blacken your hair, add a royal mustache or finesse some other human insecurity. Who needs Photoshop?
All the calculations are done by instinct, he says proudly.
As a satisfied Tanwar heads off, Chand pulls out a grainy black-and-white shot of his grandfather, the patriarch of the photo dynasty, wearing thick, dark-framed glasses and a Punjabi hat that vaguely resembles a fez. Not only did his grandfather start it all, he says, his photo was taken with this very camera.
Chand’s grandfather, a social worker and small-time politician, became fascinated by photography and used to go to a nearby museum to see the cameras on display. Grandpa was on good terms with the British, Chand says, and one day he revealed his passion for photography to an officer, who told someone in the palace.
Although the story at this point gets hazier than one of Chand’s old photos, the upshot is that Chand’s grandfather somehow received the camera as a gift of the royal family.
The rest is history.
India has long enjoyed its share of useful contraptions, even if they aren’t always cutting edge. With its rich civilization, India was a great scientific innovator in ancient times, says Deepak Kumar, a professor of science history at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, only to “rather unfortunately” lose out to Europe after about AD 1100 and never recover.
“We played with marbles while you played with glass, the basic technology leading to the cellphone,” Kumar says. Now “we’re a poor country and foreign technology can be very expensive.”
After gaining independence from Britain, India adopted policies meant to keep foreign competitors out, setting high tariffs on Japanese gizmos and German widgets. A side effect, however, was that homegrown companies felt little pressure to innovate.
India’s infamous bureaucracy, with its emphasis on hierarchy and procedure, has also impeded change, especially when it has involved labor-saving technologies in such a populous country. A long-standing joke has it that India’s IT industry grew while Delhi slept.
In July, India’s comptroller and auditor-general revealed that 30,000 applicants at employment centers in Tamil Nadu state may have lost their shot at jobs because non-Y2K compliant computers believed that their applications had been filed between 1900 and 1908. The outdated software also listed 348 candidates as being 100 years or older.
But don’t talk to Chand about outdated. His trusty old box has supported his wife and two sons, albeit with some ups and downs. His clientele includes locals and tourists, he says proudly, some from as far away as Russia and Thailand. He’s out here every day, he says, with neither rain, hail, heat or sun able to keep him from his appointed images. On a bad day he’ll earn nothing, on a good day up to $18, considered a good working-class wage.
Will either of his sons, ages 6 and 11, go into the business? “They only like the new stuff, snazzy cellphones, computer games, digital this-and-that,” he says. “It will probably end with me.”
He stops a minute, mulling the consequences.
“Even after I retire, though, I’ll keep a plaque on my gate,” he says. “That way anyone who wants to get their portrait taken the old-fashioned way can still do it.”
Anshul Rana of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.