Ashwath Narayan’s Cinematic Legacy in Black, White and Sepia Tones

An exhibition of photographs from the golden age of Kannada cinema captured by Ashwath Narayan, is on display in Bengaluru this weekend

An exhibition of photographs from the golden age of Kannada cinema captured by Ashwath Narayan, is on display in Bengaluru this weekend

Once upon a time, stills from films were displayed in single-screen cinemas, safely out of reach of souvenir hunters, in display cases under a banner proudly proclaiming “Now Showing”. Now, unseen gems of 88-year-old Kannada film industry history captured by photojournalist Ashwath Narayana between 1966 and 2005 will be on display at the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat.

“Initially, I wanted to display more than 500 photos, but I had to settle for 300 due to lack of space. We limited ourselves to ‘behind the scenes’ photographs of artists on site and technicians at work,” says Ashwath, of the exhibition titled, Nenapu-Ashwath Kannalli Camera (Memories-through lens eye of Ashwath) which was curated by cinematographer BS Basavaraj and film historian Doddahullura Rukkoji.

Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath Narayan

Among the exhibits are photos of some Hindi cinema legends such as Raj Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna and Jaya Bhaduri among others. “They were quite cooperative and down to earth – whether it was Rajesh Khanna, Amrish Puri or Pran, they didn’t flaunt their stardom,” Ashwath recalled.

Ashwath and his family have been closely linked to Kannada film history for decades – Pragati Studio in Gandhi Nagar, established in 1972, exclusively shot film stills and eventually became known as Pragati Ashwat Narayan. It lowered its shutters in 2005.

Jaya Bhaduri

Jaya Bhaduri | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath’s interest in photography began in 1965 and he credits his brother Nagesh Baba, who ran the Three Star Film Studio at T Nagar, Chennai, for pushing him in this direction.

“My brother asked me to help him in his studio after my graduation exam in Bangalore,” says Ashwath. “One day, he asked me to visit a set and photograph the filming in progress. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film was Belli Fashion (1967) – directed by Puttanna Kanagal, this was the first Kannada film to be shot exclusively on location.

Actors of yesteryear Bharathi and Dr. Rajkumar traveling in a bus

Actors of yesteryear Bharathi and Dr. Rajkumar traveling in a bus | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath never looked back after Belli Fashion and went on to document the making of over 300 films, gracefully stepping off the stage in 2005 when digital photography took over.

Looking back on his career, Ashwath says he is equally indebted to filmmakers, cinematographers, technicians and many others for the singular success he has enjoyed. Besides working with big names such as Puttanna Kanagal, S. Siddalingaiah, Bangale Shama Rao Dwarakanath (popularly known as Dwarakish) and others, he was also credited with capturing the first footage of Shankar Nag , Charan Raj, Sridhar and other legends.

Ashwath has been instrumental in capturing stills for over 11 Puttanna Kanagal films. He recalls: “I constantly hovered around Puttanna and initially he tolerated me. However, he slowly realized the importance of capturing the process of filmmaking and accepted me as part of his unit.

Puttanna at a party hosted by Kalpana

Puttanna at a party organized by Kalpana | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

Puttanna alone is the subject of approximately 600 negatives that Ashwath owns, some of which are in the process of being digitized. “Almost all of the photos of him that appear today were taken by me,” says Ashwath, who curated an exhibition of more than 200 photographs documenting Puttanna’s working style in 2011.

Generations of moviegoers have seen his photos on various platforms, often posted without giving Ashwath credit. His book Chitrapatha, is an attempt to introduce today’s generation to the bygone era of Kannada cinema and stars of yesteryear. Dr. Rajkumar-Samagra Charity, by Doddahullura Rukkoji which won a national award, contains over 700 photos of the legendary movie star taken by Ashwath. Similarly, books on S. Siddalingaiah and Puttanna Kanagal by writer Shashidhar Chitradurga boast of photos clicked by Ashwath, who has a treasure trove of over 3 lakh negatives captured in his Rolleicord – a format twin-lens reflex camera medium.

Dr. Rajkumar and Puttanna

Dr. Rajkumar and Puttanna | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

“His black and white images, captured mostly in natural light, have a magical effect. Each of his frames tells a story; at the same time, they are instructive and informative about the filmmaking process itself. There is a candid and endearing quality to his images – you can see his love for filmmaking shine through them,” says BS Basavaraj, acclaimed cinematographer, who worked with Ashwath in Siddalingaiah. Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu.

Black and white remains Ashwath’s preferred format. “In black and white images, there is no color distraction. There was a time when films were marketed based on the album of still images captured during their making. They were used to capture the emotional quotient of the film and spark the curiosity of potential audiences,” he says, regretfully admitting that the art has since been reduced to a modeling stint. “All of today’s stills feature the modeling of actors or actresses,” says Ashwath, adding that was one of the reasons he said goodbye to still photography.

Actresses of yesteryear Sarojadevi, Pandari Bai, Bhanumathi and Jayanthi

Actresses of yesteryear Sarojadevi, Pandari Bai, Bhanumathi and Jayanthi | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

Now 76, Ashwath worries about the preservation of the negatives of his photos. He plans to create a virtual library that would allow film historians, writers, students and archivists to access his treasure trove of visuals; however, lack of funds has been a major obstacle. “So far, more than 70,000 negatives have been scanned. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) offered me a worthy sum for the handing over of my visual property, but I declined. My intention is to preserve these images for the benefit of Kannada cinema. If the government shows any interest, I am ready to part ways with them for the Karnataka Film Archive provided by Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy.

Nenapu-Ashwath Camera Kannalli, an exhibition of rare photographs on Kannada cinema, will be presented at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat from September 2 to 4

Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath Narayan

Nugget of nostalgia

According to Ashwath, during the golden era of Kannada cinema, films such as Bangarada Manushya by Siddalingaiah which came out in 1972, lasted 100 weeks – a far cry from the 100 days that are now celebrated with great fanfare.

Dr. Rajkumar and Thoogudeepa Srinivas

Dr. Rajkumar and Thoogudeepa Srinivas | Photo credit: Ashwath Narayan

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