According to Elliot Erwitt, an American photographer, “Photography is not what you see but how you see things.’ True to it, a number of photographers have created a niche by seeing beyond what a common eye could. One such picture-perfect location that excites the photographers is the City of Destiny aka Vizag. Known for its vast beaches, lush green hills, and breathtaking views, the beauty of Vizag has inspired many to get their hands on the lens. On the occasion of World Photography Day, John Castellas, a heritage enthusiast, brings forward the story of the first family of photographers of Vizag.
In the middle of the 19th century, photography took over from painting as the new mode of representing the world. The camera reached India in around 1855 and the monuments and landscape of India were an ideal subject for the rise of photography as a major art form. European photographers led an era in which the diverse customs of India – the temples, animals and people – could all be experienced with objective photographic clarity for the very first time, above and beyond the limits of any painter’s eye with panoramic shots of famous architecture – the Taj Mahal, Golden Temple, cities and landscapes – were commissioned by the East India Company when the camera first arrived on Indian shores in the mid-nineteenth century.
And so it was in about 1875 with photographers of Vizag, with Madras-based companies such as Nicholas & Co, Hughes Brothers and Wiele & Klein providing early landscapes and portraits for the local Maharajahs and Missionaries, After the turn of the 20th century, increasingly commercial demand for portrait photography led to the opening of studios in major Indian cities. This translated into different stylistic conventions, such as the use of elaborate, Victorian-style indoor props – ornate wooden stools, painted curtain drapes – in an attempt to emulate a European environment.
The first resident photographer of Vizag was C Moonesamy Mudaliar who captured the images of early Vizag architecture and landmarks and his family has since dominated the Vizag photographic profession. His son-in-law was P Natesan Mudaliar whose son, in turn, was PN Rajagopal who was a well-known Vizag photographer of the ’50s and ’60s. Mudaliar’s two sons-in-law, who married Rajeswari and Kokilamba, managed the two Rathnam & Co Studios. Firstly, M Doraiswamy, H/O Rajeswari, had a studio near HMS Bakery in One Town, and M Natarajan, H/O Kokilamba, had a studio near Poorna Market on the main road. C Moonesamy Mudaliar’s great-grandsons Pondamalli Rajagopal Narayanaswami and PR Srinivas currently live in Dabagardens. Together with sibling R Vijay Kumar, these family members still carry on the family photographic traditions as freelance photographers in Vizag.
Vizag in 1908 was a postcard-perfect town of white chunam painted bungalows and rippling surf with wide sandy beaches. The dominant features were the newly erected lighthouse, the St Aloysius School, the hills in the background and their mosque, temple and chapel structures.
The first school building on the Beach Road corner was the foundation of St Aloysius as it was in this building that Father Tissot of the Missionaries of Saint Francis de Sales started classes in 1847. The missionaries became customers for Mudaliar’s photographs of Vizag as they featured in articles they wrote for Catholic periodicals in France and Italy.
Moonesamy Mudaliar’s photographic studios were located on Harbour Road, at the HMS Bakery site, opposite today’s Queen Mary High School, in Soldierpet. The school was then the location of the collector’s and post offices as well, and this old Vizag landmark image he captured for a postcard.
With the coming of the railways to Vizag in the 1890s and the promotion of Vizag and Waltair as tourist spots, Mudaliar advertised in the 1902 magazine of the Madras Railway Company promoting the new East Coast Railway line to Vizagapatam. He was a member of the Madras Photographic Society and also advertised his other business as a Coach Maker. Coach making was a necessity as the cameras, cases, stands, lights and props he carried on assignment required him to have several horse-drawn carriages, which he then expanded into a business. This may also explain the positioning of carriages in some of his photographs.
As postcards grew in popularity, Mudaliar sold his own postcards that were printed for him in England and also sold his images to the Bengal Nagpur Railway for the postcards they printed and sold on railway station platforms about 1910. He also experimented with the first hand-painted images of Vizag. The Rathnam’s (sons-in-law to Mudaliar) continued the studios and photographed the growing landscape of Waltair and the construction of the new Vizag harbour in the 1920s.
Perhaps the trend of technological consumption, albeit of photography started by C Moonesamy Mudaliar, is what eventually evolved into one aspect of Vizag we see today: a ballooning economy and an empowered middle class equipped with the latest cell phones and its camera for endless ‘selfies’ and social media images.
Should you have an anecdote or history on Vizag, the author would appreciate you contact him at [email protected]
Written by John Castellas whose family belonged to Vizag for 5 generations. Educated at St Aloysius, migrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1966, former General Manager Engineering at Boeing & Qantas Airways, in retirement Lecturers in Aviation Management at Swinburne University and is a Vizag aficionado.
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