By Ravindra Bhalerao
How does a camera work… and why can’t we point a camera towards Yonder Hill and merely press the button? These were the questions on my mind as I walked the streets of Laitumkhrah nearly half a century ago.
That was Shillong in the 1980s, beautiful and picturesque, a city nestling amid forests of pine, and unspoiled by the mad frenzy of what we call “progress” today. It was a city I loved.
So here I was, a college youth, who had discovered a new passion in life – a passion for the camera. The ubiquitous mobile phone had yet to arrive: a job as simple as taking a picture was a herculean task, involving the use of a film camera carrying on it confusing dials and knobs… It was all a great mystery I knew next to nothing about.
On the recommendation of a friend, I visited the State Central Library of the city, where to my great delight I found in the reference section, a masterly work titled, Basic Photography authored by the legendary Michael Langford of the Royal College of Art, London.
Langford’s book was a definitive work on the subject and I was captivated by it. Week after week I returned to the library, taking diligent notes, soaking in the wisdom of the book. There were other tomes on the subject in the library as well, all of which contributed towards the fulfilment of my goal. There could be no better foundation for a person looking for a sound education in photography.
As the mysteries of photography began to unveil before my eyes, I soon became aware of the need to buy a suitable camera. And thus began my hunt for a camera that would take me towards my artistic vision.
Studio Monalisa, Studio Rembrandt, and Eros… those were the big names in photography in the Laitumkhrah area at the time. These studios stocked cameras as well, and the proprietors were good enough to share their knowledge and wisdom with me. Then there was that super store in the Bara Bazar area called Photographic Store, the authorised dealer for Agfa Gevaert. My camera search would take me to nearly every nook and cranny of the town, ranging from the hills of Nongthymmai to the far reaches of Mawlai.
My hunt for the ideal camera culminated in my discovery of the Agfa Isoly II, a delightful little roll film camera, which I knew would serve my purpose admirably well. Armed then with the Isoly, and steadying my nerves, I set about taking pictures.
Shillong was a city of lofty cathedrals and winding roads, pine forests and charming little cottages with pretty front gardens, and I wandered at will taking anything that caught my fancy. At other times, I would pick up my camera and take to the hills trudging up the stone strewn pathway that led on towards the summit where stood the towering microwave station, eternally standing like a sentinel watching over the city below.
There, at the hilltop, one could feel a vast silence broken only by the chirp of birds and the sigh of the breeze. There, spread before the eye, was an enthralling view of the city bathed in sunshine, sprawling in all its glory amidst the hills. You saw tiny blue coloured buses meandering cautiously through the valley, and matchbox cottages set amidst forests of pine; you saw a mother with a basket strapped to her back labouring up an incline… That was Shillong as seen from the hill top.
Landscapes always held the greatest charm for me, but I also took pictures of the State Central Library followed by St Mary’s Cathedral in Laitumkhrah. In retrospect, I feel I could have done better; I could have broadened my photographic vision to include more of the city’s iconic landmarks.
Today, more than four decades have passed since I moved out of the city. The dozen or so negatives I possess are far from being a full photographic chronicle of the town from the past. And yet, they remain to this day my most cherished treasure, a bright patch of sunshine that evokes poignant memories of those good old days in Shillong.