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Monday, May 27, 2024

The Rise and Fall of Studio Monalisa, Shillong

Here is a moving account of the history of Studio Monalisa, one of the earliest color film processing labs in Shillong. Ravindra Bhalerao recounts his friendship with the proprietors of the business back in the eighties, going on to describe how the studio vanished in time, leaving no trace behind.

By Ravindra Bhalerao

Housed in a ramshackle building in the colourful marketplace of Laitumkhrah of Shillong there once stood a photo studio that was manned by two brothers who held charge of a great innovative centre of photography in town. The studio was a pioneering photographic institution in its own right and went on to achieve a standard of excellence that was rarely to be found elsewhere, thereby serving as an inspiration and example for other photo businesses of the city to follow.

How I came upon the brothers Panna and Abhoy Paul of Studio Monalisa, Shillong is a story in itself. Back in the 1980s, I had picked up a fascination for photography. My knowledge of the subject was only sketchy so I began with a bit of research, reading books on the subject and visiting photo stores in town to explore the different camera models on sale.

While engaged in this job, I came upon a delightful man who ran a studio in the Laitumkhrah area of the town. Mr Panna Paul of Studio Monalisa, fair-skinned, stoutly built, dressed in a suit and speaking good English, was as lively a man as ever there was, a man teeming with ideas and brimming with enthusiasm. He was known to be an expert in his field, he had trained in Calcutta, and he along with his brother Abhoy managed a studio and color film processing laboratory situated opposite the Post Office of Laitumkhrah.

What began as a simple acquaintance with the brothers soon blossomed into friendship and camaraderie. I was soon to become a regular visitor to Studio Monalisa, finding great enjoyment in the lively discussions that often took place on a variety of subjects. The studio was the meeting point of many of Abhoyda’s friends. Thus we had the suave Mr Mukherjee, there was the simple Mr Nandi as well as several others who often dropped in for a chat, maybe even for a heated discussion on a subject of mutual interest.

An admirable trait of the Paul brothers that endeared them to me was their willingness and patience to explain principles. Those with little knowledge of their subject tend to brush off your questions, but here were two men who had trained in professional schools, who knew their lenses and cameras well enough and were all too willing to share their photographic expertise with a beginner.

A few meetings with the brothers, and I knew that I was amidst friends who wished me well, that this was the place where I could pick up camera skills and learn.

In the meantime, my search for a camera had yielded the Agfa Isoly II, a camera that seemed to suit my needs well, and armed with this I went about taking a few pictures in town. It was experimentation with a camera that fascinated me, and I would often return to the studio for instruction. Here I would find the brothers Panna and Abhoy Paul busy at work, but always courteous, ready to welcome me, and eager to assess my progress in photography.

I met up with the brothers from time to time to chat on various topics, discuss technique in photography and pick up hints and tips. The elder brother had clearly taken a liking to me. ‘Your negatives should be thin…’ Panna Paul would emphasize. At other times he lent me his photographic magazines to read, and when the time came for me to take leave, he would often say ‘Come again..’ in a cheery tone.

Things continued thus over the next few years. Being my mentors, the Paul brothers sometimes urged me to try out color film in my camera. I remained adamant, though, saying that I preferred black and white. Its working was simpler to understand, I knew, and besides it was more forgiving when you made errors in setting the camera exposure. It was also cheaper to work with.

The day would come when I had to bid a sad farewell to Shillong and make my way elsewhere in the big, wide world. When I finally bid goodbye to Shillong in 1988, the studio was still in operation, doing well in business. Thereafter there were other matters to occupy my attention and in the hurry and bustle of life I soon lost touch with the brothers I had come to know so well.

The years wore on, and decades passed. Once while browsing through the dusty family album I found myself overcome with a wave of nostalgia. Those pictures of old Shillong brought back fond memories, giving rise to a warmth I had never felt before. Perhaps the old photo studio in Shillong I had grown so fond of still lingered on.. its owners, now advanced in age, might just remember me..

I lost no time in making a Google search on Monalisa. Getting no results, I contacted other sources in Shillong and the news I received only confirmed my fears. Studio Monalisa had shut business many years ago, the voice on the phone said. After conducting business for a good many years, Panna Paul, getting on in years, had moved to Calcutta where in time he passed away, whilst Abhoy, the younger brother, following the studio’s closure, had moved to some obscure place. Sadly, he too had passed on some years back.

These were confirmed facts, leaving no room for doubt. I could only lean back in my chair losing myself in contemplation, a dull pain engulfing my whole being like a cold winter mist from a river.

Thus ended the saga of Studio Monalisa of Shillong and its two cheerful proprietors. During its time Monalisa offered top-class photographic services to its clients. Set up by Panna Paul in the 1960s while he was still a young man, the studio had begun with black and white work, but with the growing popularity of colour film in the 1980s, the Paul brothers trained in manual colour film processing and set up their own colour lab. Henceforth, Monalisa would devote itself mostly to colour processing work. It gave a great boost to the business.

Monalisa Studio of Laitumkhrah had remained in operation for a good many years. It was a landmark photo establishment of its day in the town, setting a tradition of photographic excellence that others would follow. But like all good things it had to come to an end. In time, the studio would vanish leaving no trace behind except wistful memories. What was once an institution in the field of photography in town had come to a close, never to reopen again.

I couldn’t help feeling a tinge of sadness and melancholy over the passing of Monalisa and its proprietors. I had just seen a shooting star rise in the heavens in all its glory, then to disappear in the blackness of the night for evermore.

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