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

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

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

“I initially wanted to display over 500 pictures but had to settle for 300 due to lack of space. We limited ourselves to ‘behind the scene’ photographs of artistes on location and technicians at work,” says Ashwath, talking about the exhibition titled, Nenapu-Ashwath Camera Kannalli (Memories-through lens eye of Ashwath) which was curated by cinematographer B S Basavaraj and film historian Doddahullura Rukkoji.

Ashwath Narayan

Among the exhibits are pictures of a few Hindi film 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 did not flaunt their stardom,” Ashwath recalls.

Ashwath and his family have been closely linked to the history of Kannada cinema for decades — Pragati Studio in Gandhi Nagar, established in 1972, exclusively took movie stills and eventually came to be known as Pragati Ashwat Narayan. It pulled down 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 was running Three Star Studio dedicated to cinema in T Nagar, in Chennai, for nudging him in this direction.

“My brother asked me to assist him in his studio after my matriculation examination in Bengaluru,” Ashwath says. “One day he asked me to visit a set and photograph the ongoing shooting. Once there, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the movie was Belli Moda (1967) — directed by Puttanna Kanagal, it was the first Kannada movie to be shot exclusively outdoors.”

Yesteryear actors Bharathi and Dr Rajkumar travelling in a bus 

Yesteryear actors Bharathi and Dr Rajkumar travelling in a bus 
| Photo Credit: Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath never looked back after  Belli Moda and went on to document the making of over 300 movies, gracefully exiting the scene in 2005, when digital photography took over.

Looking back at his career, Ashwath says he is equally indebted to film-makers, cinematographers, technicians and many others for the singular success he has enjoyed. Apart from working with greats such as Puttanna Kanagal, S. Siddalingaiah, Bangale Shama Rao Dwarakanath (popularly known as Dwarakish) and others, he has also been credited with capturing the first images of Shankar Nag, Charan Raj, Sridhar and other legends.

Ashwath was instrumental in capturing stills for over 11 of Puttanna Kanagal’s films. He recalls, ”I was constantly shooting around Puttanna and initially, he would just tolerate me. However, he slowly understood the importance of capturing the process of filmmaking and accepted me as a part of his unit.”

Puttanna at a party thrown by Kalpana

Puttanna at a party thrown by Kalpana
| Photo Credit: Ashwath Narayan

Puttanna alone is the subject of around 600 negatives Ashwath has, some of which he is digitising. “Almost any photo of his that appears today was taken by me,” says Ashwath, who held an exhibition of over 200 photographs documenting Puttanna’s working style in 2011.

Generations of cinema-goers have seen his photos on various platforms, often displayed without giving Ashwath credit. His book Chitrapatha, is an attempt to introduce today’s generation to the bygone days of Kannada cinema and yesteryear stars. Dr Rajkumar-Samagra Charitre, by Doddahullura Rukkoji which won a national award, has over 700 pictures of the legendary movie star shot 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 medium format twin lens reflex camera.

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 tell a story; at the same time, they are instructive and informative about the process of filmmaking itself. There is a candid, endearing quality about his images — you can see his love for cinema shine through them,” says B S Basavaraj, noted cinematographer, who worked with Ashwath in Siddalingaiah’s Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu. 

Black and white remains Ashwath’s favourite format. “In black and white pictures, there is no distraction of colour. There was a time when films were marketed based on the album of stills captured during their making. They were used to capture the emotional quotient of the film and trigger curiosity in potential audiences,” he says, ruefully admitting that the art has since been reduced to a modelling stint. “All stills today feature the actors or actresses modelling,” says Ashwath, adding that it was one of the reasons he bid adieu to still photography.

Yesteryear actresses Sarojadevi, Pandari Bai, Bhanumathi and Jayanthi

Yesteryear actresses Sarojadevi, Pandari Bai, Bhanumathi and Jayanthi
| Photo Credit: Ashwath Narayan

Now 76, Ashwath is worried about the preservation of his pictures’ negatives. He is planning to create a virtual library which would give film historians, writers, students and archivists access to his treasure trove of visuals; however, the dearth of funds has been a major obstacle. “So far, over 70,000 negatives have been digitised. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) offered me a dignified sum for handing over my visual property, but I refused. My intention is to preserve these pictures for the benefit of Kannada cinema. If the government shows any interest, I am ready to part with them for the Karnataka Film Archives being planned by Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy.”

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

Ashwath Narayan

Ashwath Narayan

Nostalgia nugget

According to Ashwath, in the golden days of Kannada cinema, movies such as  Bangarada Manushya by Siddalingaiah which was released in 1972, ran for 100 weeks — a far cry from the 100 days that are now celebrated with much fanfare.

Dr Rajkumar and Thoogudeepa Srinivas

Dr Rajkumar and Thoogudeepa Srinivas
| Photo Credit: Ashwath Narayan



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