Lakshminarayan Roychoudhury, the first professional Indian photographer-painter was born in 1866. His father Jadunath was descendant of Ratneshwar Roychoudhury of the famous Sabarna Choudhury clan of Calcutta who founded the Uttarpara town in Hooghly district of West Bengal in 1709. The house on Choudhury Para Street was built by Ratneshwar based on Turkish architectural design and called ‘Sabarna Villa’. The villa has been dismantled in 1990 and housing colonies constructed in its place.
Lakshminarayan had two elder brothers, Harinarayan and Baikunthanath. The descendants of Ranteshwar Roychoudhury had crossed hundred through his three wives and wives of his sons by 1800s which forced members to branch out and seek their own livelihood. The main source of income of Sabarna Choudhury zamindars had been revenue from vast tract of land and gold corpus given to them by Emperors Akbar and Jahangir.The Roychoudhury title was bestowed on the family by Mughal Emperors. The family’s surname was, in fact, Gangopadhyay or Ganguly till the doyen of the clan Lakshmikanta Gangopadhyay ( 1570-1649) received the title. They were Brahmins.
Consequent on acquisition of Calcutta and villages around it by the East India Company in 1698, the clan had started disintegrating. They had also sided with Nabob Sirajuddaula during the battle of Plassey resulting into disfavour from the British when they became rulers. Lakshminarayan had the knack of drawing sketches from childhood. After his marriage to thirteen year old Apurvamoyee Mukherjee of Central Calcutta, when he was in search of a source of income other than doles from his father, he came across 19th Century gentries known to his father in law, and was thus introduced to the evolving culture of writing and painting of his time. He learned the rudiments of formal drawing from the circle of intellectuals of the Brahmo Samaj ; however, his conservative Hindu father Jadunath and mother Matangini were against his friendship with the members of the Brahmo Samaj. During this period of indecision he could impress a representative of the Emir of Bahawalpur with his art who invited him for painting portraits of members of the Emir’s family. The representative had gone to Calcutta in connection with some business. Being a member of the Sabarna Choudhury clan, Lakshminarayan knew pre-British state language Persian as well as Arabic which proved helpful for him in getting his first job.
Bahawalpur was far away from Calcutta. Lakshminarayan preferred to get out of the family restrictions imposed by his father, and reached Bahawalpur with his wife after about six months. The Emir was quite impressed with his art work and assigned paintings of his family members to young Lakshminarayan. It is said that a few of the drawings made by Lakshminarayan later found their way to the postage stamps of the state. His popularity in Bahawalpur got him invitations from Chitral, Hunja, Fulra and Makran kingdoms — places now in Pakistan. He also visited Kabul on receipt of invitation from the members of the King’s court. Having saved sufficient money he moved to Lahore for settling at the place as his wife was pregnant with their first child.
In Lahore Lakshminarayan met John Lockwood Kipling, father of famous colonial writer Rudyard Kipling in search of a job so that he may have a fixed source of income and at the same time improve his skill. In 1875 John Lockwood Kipling had been appointed Principal of Mayo College of Arts, Lahore ( present day National College of Arts, Pakistan ). John Lockwood Kipling also became curator of Lahore Museum. Lakshminarayan came to know about photography from Kipling. By this time photography had progressed in Europe and Daguerreotype camera had been replaced by bellow-lens cameras ; the processing of photographs had undergone revolutionary changes. In Daguerreotype photography, invented in 1830, an image could be made only once by immersing it in salt water. In 1841 Fox Talbot had invented the Calotype process ; in it a negative was made from which unlimited copies could be made. However, these were on paper.
In 1848 Frederic Scott Archer had invented the wet Collodion process image. This process produced a negative image on a transparent photographic medium ; the photographer could make multiple prints from just one negative. This process required a darkroom for processing. Lakshminarayan got the opportunity to learn photography from John Lockwood Kipling and purchased a bellow-lens camera. In 1880 he established a photographic company styled as Roychowdry & Co with a darkroom at his residence. The Collodion process had been replaced by gelatin dry plates — glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin.
With the new invention, painting portraits of women became easier for Lakshminarayan. Earlier it was quite difficult for him to convince conservative family heads of Maharaja, Raja, Raje, Deshmukh, Nabob, Baig, Khan, Mirza or Emirs to allow their female members to be seated for quite sometime in front of him in order to draw their sketches to be converted into paintings. Now he could just take a photograph and draw a painting based thereon. The feudal kings were also fascinated with photographs.
Lakshminarayan started receiving offers from other Indian kingdoms. Thus his journey as a mobile photography company began. He had three sons by now. Pramod, Sushil and Ranjit. It is said that Lakshminarayan’s wife was so fascinated with stories about Maharaja Ranjit Singh that she named their third son Ranjit. Whenever Lakshminarayan received calls from the Kings/Emirs he took his entire family along with him. As a result the children could not have regular education and had to be taught by a teacher of the court deputed by the Kings/Emirs. They, nevertheless, learned the skills of the trade from their father which became quite helpful for them later in life.
Promod had grown up and helped his father in carrying the bellow-lens camera in a wooden box whenever Lakshminarayan was invited for family photographs of clients. Sushil carried the camera tripod on which the field camera used to be placed and Ranjit carried the black hood which was required at the time of focusing the lens before a photo was shot. If there was lack of sufficient light all the three boys held burning magnesium wires during the photo shoot.
Lakshminarayan had three more sons, Anil, Sunil and Bishwanath. He decided to station his family at Uttarpara when he received a call from his father Jadunath who wanted to divide his property among his three sons. Apurvamayee was pregnant and gave birth to a daughter who was named Kamala. The three younger sons and the daughter remained at Uttarpara with Apurvamayee whereas Lakshminarayan moved from one feudal kingdom to another with Pramod, Sushil and Ranjit. Among his sons he loved Ranjit the most as Ranjit perfected not only photo shooting but also in darkroom work and making collodion emulsion for photo processing. The emulsion was a mixture of silver bromide, pyrogallic acid, potassium bromide and ammonium carbonate in prescribed proportions.
Lakshminarayan got his two sons Pramod and Sushil married during this time to Nanadarani and Karuna. Since Apurvamayee stayed at Uttarpara, ladies were required for kitchen etc work when Lakshminarayan and the three sons moved from place to place. Later, when Kishorimohan Bandyopadhyay approached him for preparing slides for magic lantern to be used for Bandyopadhyay’s anti-malaria campaigns in Bengal villages, Lakshminarayan got his son Ranjit married to Kishorimohan Bandyopadhyay’s daughter Amita. Kishorimohan Bandyopadhyay was research assistant of Ronald Ross. Ross was awarded the Nobel Prize while Kishorimohan Bandyopadhyay was awarded with a gold medal by King Edward VII.
On an invitation from the Maharaja of Darbhanga to the Maharaja’s Patna palace ( now a University Building ) Lakshminarayan went to Patna and called Apurvamayee along with the other children since Patna was quite close to Uttarpara. Unfortunately Lakshminarayan had a heart attack and died at Patna in 1933.
Death of Lakshminarayan created a great financial burden on his children as they were not personally known to their father’s feudal clients. Lakshminarayan handled this aspect himself. Apurvamayee pursued with his cousin brother Troilokyanath Mukhopadhyay, who was a reputed author as well as Assistant Curator of Calcutta Museum. On Troilokyanath’s recommendation Pramod got the job of ‘Keeper of Paintings and Sculpture’ at the Patna Museum. However, his salary was not sufficient for the family. The brothers decided to open a photographic shop at Patna and Chhapra in Bihar and one at Uttarpara itself. Sushil was sent to Chhapra, Anil to Uttarpara and Ranjit took the responsibility to run the main shop at Patna. Anil was married to Amiya of Calcutta so that he may take interest in the business and run the shop and earn profit.
Both Sushil and Anil failed in their ventures, and went back to Patna with their family. Apurvamayee decided to stay alone at the Sabarna Villa which had started crumbling due to neglet.
The business venture henceforth remained centred at Patna with a photographic shop in front of the Bihar National College on Ashok Rajpath, which later shifted to Dariapur in front of Patna Collegiate school on Bari Road. Since there was no competition and Roychowdry & Co held agencies of photographic material and equipment companies it became famous in a very short time. It also became popular among the young freedom fighters of the Indian National Congess. Sushil and Anil was given the work of converting photos into paintings.
The company shifted to Dariapur in 1954. It started receiving even 50 year old photographs from various clients to be retouched and remade. In many cases such old photographs had the face only intact ; either Nandarani, who was plump, or Amita, who was thin, posed as models so that the face of the lady was placed on their torso. Sushil and Anil were experts in reconstructing such photographs.
After the death of Ranjit in 1991 the business venture has undergone sea change in view of digitization of photography. It is now run by Ranjit’s grandson Hridayesh who has received special training in digital photography. He has widened the scope of the business venture to suit the fast paced world of modern-day photography.
Present descendants of Lakshminarayan Roychoudhury