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Bourne & Shepherd captured Kolkata’s babus behind the lens

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On 141 S.N Banerjee Road, stands a dilapidated building that still holds on to its last iron and mortar frame. Amid this sight of decay, the word ‘photographe’ is still visible, below which is written ‘Bourne & Shepherd.’ In 1863, George Shepherd and Samuel Bourne opened a studio in Kolkata, with business partner, William Howard. Howard started Calcutta Photographer Studio in 1840 and Bourne and Shepherd was set up in the same building. 

Usually in those days, more than 40 coolies moved around with heavy equipment or camped nearby to help foreigners click pictures. Their camps could be seen near bathing ghats and business district of central Kolkata (Dalhousie Square). Kolkata would be captured in different frames by these sahibs. They also launched their studio photography business here. In these studios, for a portrait capture, a mood was created and photographs turned to designer products.

Many cultural, literary, political icons, celebrities and aristocrat ladies thronged these elegant colonial buildings for signature portraits. Ladies who seldom set their feet outside their houses, travelled excitedly to get their profiles captured in still frames. They enjoyed the magical experience of a sahib photographer capturing their profiles in a small, rectangular glass. One lady writes how a sahib photographer, ‘Dashed and hid behind a black cloth. I have a feeling a witch from London hides behind it and the sahib takes the picture after deliberations with her.’ Photographers decided on compositions. A lady would sit on a chair and her male counterpart stood behind her, touching the chair. This reflected harmony and peace. The lady was occupant of the throne, the male her protector. 

Bourne & Shepherd brought about a social change in Bengal and taught Bengali men to look at their female counterparts in a new light. Their compositions set up new etiquettes. The studio set standards for clicking photographs of those going abroad or girls of elite families going to Bethune School, who had to pose with books in front of a marble-topped table. 

In 1991, a devastating fire destroyed Bourne & Shepherd’s archives. The dilapidated structure still stands at the site.