A photographer known primarily for his architectural photographs documenting significant moments in the urbanisation of New Delhi, Madan Mahatta was a part of the Mehta family (anglicised to Mahatta) which has been crucial in the development of studio photography in India. The studio, Mahatta & Co., was first established in Srinagar in 1915 with branches in Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Murree that were shut down post-partition. By 1948, the family had moved to New Delhi and established a branch in Connaught Place, now their flagship studio.
Madan Mahatta studied at Vincent Hill in Mussoorie and left for England in 1950 to pursue higher studies and at the Guilford School of Arts and Crafts, Surrey, between 1951 and 1953, he received formal training in photography. He was also an apprentice at the Ilford Lab in Cricklewood, London. Upon completion of his course, he stayed on for an extra year to study a relatively new development – colour photography – which was being introduced at the institute. He returned to Delhi in 1954, joined his family’s studio and introduced negative to positive colour printing, making Mahatta & Co the first studio to do so in India.
He returned at an opportune moment because at that time the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was embarking on his expansive building project in New Delhi. The city needed new institutions and infrastructure for every sector, whether it was arts, science, agriculture, education, commerce or administration; this was an ideological project to build a modern nation. Through the 1950-80s, Mahatta documented changes brought to Delhi’s architectural landscape in the Nehruvian era. He worked closely with architects who were building these structures, such as Raj Rewal, Charles Correa, Habib Rahman, Achyut Kanvinde, Jasbir Sawhney, JK Chowdhury, Joseph Allen Stein, Ram Sharma and Kuldip Singh. His architectural photographs include landmark constructions such as housing projects by Delhi Development Authority (DDA), Asian Games Village, the campus of Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, Sapru House, the India International Center, National Delhi Municipal Council building, Parliament Annexe and the now-demolished Hall of Nations in Pragati Maidan.
His association with these architects enabled him to understand formal aspects of these buildings, as well as light’s projection and illumination in the structures. Photographing with a Linhof camera, using a medium-format film and an extremely wide lens, he could take pictures with a clear, undistorted perspective that captured an expansive sense of the space. Following the conventions of architectural photography, his photographs do not have people in them and many of them are captured at a diagonal, incorporating the foreground which accentuates the spatial depth. Mostly shot in black and white, his photographs bring out stark contrasts in light and form. He was sensitive to the modernist visual vocabulary since in his photographs the emptiness of buildings swells to magnify their monumentality and bold geometric forms are cast in an even, flat light. The interplay between the surface and light ultimately holds these images between architectonics and spectacle, laboured processes and definitive finesse.
He was regularly commissioned by architects, industrial corporations such as Escorts and by magazines such as Inside Outside. While he specialised in architectural views, he also worked across genres throughout his career. He photographed art forms such as dance and theatre, product photography, portraits and panoramic scenes. Among these, a few notable photographs include, MF Husain painting a billboard, Stein walking up the stairs of the Ford Foundation Office and the Gandhi family (Indira, Sanjay, Rajiv and Sonia) sitting in the front row at a Pierre Cardin fashion show. He captured many photographs of Connaught Place, including an evocative image of the streets flooded with rainwater and full of Chevrolet, Fiat and Ambassador cars. In 1961, he photographed Queen Elizabeth’s visit to India, where she can be seen waving to the crowds assembled on the roadsides and the balconies. He also photographed many architectural models and maquettes of projects that remained unrealised.
Despite a prolific career, his work was seldom seen outside of his immediate circle or beyond his commissions. Rarely exhibited during his lifetime, his work received attention with an exhibition of his architectural photographs, Delhi Modern, curated by the photographer Ram Rahman in 2012. Photographs from Delhi Modern have consequently been included in several exhibitions, among them are Illuminating India: Photography 1857–2017 at Media Space, Science Museum, National Media Museum, London (2017–2018); Stretched Terrains, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, New Delhi (2017); and Urban Landscapes — Indian Case Studies, The British School, Rome (2012). His work is widely collected and is part of public collections such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (New Delhi, India), M+ Museum (Hong Kong, China), Pier 24 (San Francisco, USA) and the Walker Art Centre (Minneapolis, USA).
Mahatta passed away in March 2014 after a three-year-long battle with cancer.
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