In the photograph, he’s illuminated by studio light, positioned in front of a plain backdrop that's rendered out of focus. Across his otherwise relaxed face sit two jet black eyes, stretched wide open, piercing the camera’s lens. Frozen in the photographic moment, this exchange draws us in and we become part of its dialogue. The photographer captures the man’s face, but the man looks back, at him and at us, as if to say: “Here I am, but here you are too.”
Born in 1957, a decade after Independence, the man who took this portrait of the farmer was Suresh Punjabi, the owner of Suhag Studio, which he opened in the town of Nagda, Madhya Pradesh in the late 1970s. Punjabi grew up in a changing India, where Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for postcolonial modernisation was gradually transforming small and mid-sized towns across the country. At the same time, photography studios were proliferating beyond big cities, quickly becoming fixtures of community life in places like Nagda.
The Business of Dreams explores Punjabi’s archive from the 1970s and 80s, when he produced a variety of portraits on a daily basis, from the formal and administrative to the informal and stylised. Drawing from existing literature, visual analyses, technical histories and conversations with the photographer, this exhibition shows Suhag Studio as the fixed point against which Nagda’s evolution was chronicled.
One of the earliest and perhaps most obvious drivers of Suhag Studio's business were administrative portraits, which his clients requested frequently and for a number of reasons, resulting in thousands of images.
Identification & Records
By the late 1970s, identity documents had embedded themselves deeply into Indian civic life. Standardised photographs became necessary for many administrative activities, from accessing food subsidies to completing job applications. Punjabi’s studio provided an essential administrative service – and for Nagda’s poor and working classes, it became one of the few ways in which the presence of India’s creaking bureaucracy was felt.
Most people interpreted these photographic services through their own needs. One man insisted on a full-length portrait showing his crutches in order to qualify for disability entitlements; another arrived in a crisp white shirt for a passport photograph. When juxtaposed, these images highlight the sheer diversity of Punjabi’s clients, who collectively appear as a mosaic of faces, registering the state’s efforts to make them ‘legible’ citizens.
There was, of course, much more to Punjabi's work than administrative portraits. Life in Nagda at the time, like in many towns in India, moved along a network of overlapping social relations — romantic, platonic, filial, communal, professional. As photography opened up new opportunities for self-representation, these relations seeped into Suhag Studio as well.
Friends & Family
Nagda’s growth into an industrial centre in Madhya Pradesh was felt increasingly by the smaller villages around it. In addition to its local population, people from these villages, as well as others travelling by train through Nagda Junction, also visited Punjabi’s studio, which had a diverse clientele including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and adivasis from neighbouring regions.
As the town grew, people began visiting studios more frequently and often in groups. Punjabi's sitters brought their social worlds into the photographic space and he worked to represent them against this context. The resulting images show us packed families, impassive coworkers, bashful lovers, playful friends and various expressions of cultural and religious celebration — connections, seen and unseen, caught mid-pose.
Every so often, an occasion warranted more than just a few photographs. For clients who had the money, one of Punjabi’s handmade photo albums was an obvious choice. Today, it shows us a fascinating extension of his creative and resourceful approach to his work.
While Punjabi’s group portraits allowed him a certain degree of creative flexibility, it was the photographs he made of individual sitters — often young people — where his technical acuity and artistic talent came through on full display.
Personality & the Self
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that the man standing in a three-piece suit with flared trousers and his hands on his hips knows he resembles a young Amitabh Bachchan; or that the woman holding a cluster of grapes to her face is deliberately imitating a popular filmic trope. Though distinct in their setup, what unites these portraits is the dialogue that produced them.
Although always behind the camera, these photographic arrangements also carry bits of Punjabi in them, as he frequently helped clients create poses inspired by the language of dreams and cinema as well as their own disposition. Each image expresses a distinct style of playful formality, somewhere between the conviction of performance and the irregularity of rehearsal.
Punjabi’s childhood also coincided with the waning years of the Golden Era of Hindi Cinema, which he regularly drew inspiration from when developing his own style later on. Take for instance, a concluding scene from Guru Dutt’s cult classic Pyaasa (1957), which stirred Punjabi’s imagination at a young age.
Thought to be dead, an aggrieved Urdu poet arrives at his own memorial service and renounces a world that saw no value in his work. Seeing the dramatic potential in this encounter — a pivotal scene in Pyaasa's final act — Dutt deepens its pathos with lighting and shadow. Punjabi carries this into his work, where he takes a painterly approach to light and its capacity to conceal and reveal character. In both cases, an undeniably human tension emerges. Faces partially concealed by darkness register a greater internal conflict between an actual and an imagined life, where a sturdy reality pushes up against a desire for transcendence.
The language of cinema had a significant impact on Punjabi, but it was still part of a larger constellation of influences. His work also captured how people from a fast-industrialising town – outside but never delinked from India’s urban centres – articulated their evolving ambitions and self-conceptions; where a particular posture or prop could reveal a host of personal preferences and worldviews.
Although Suhag Studio was certainly a microcosm of social and cultural life in Nagda, no account of its history would be complete without the photographs Punjabi made when he was away from his counter and traversing his town on foot, camera in tow.
Outside the Studio
After exploring how Nagda leaked into Suhag Studio, we turn to the instances when Punjabi ventured out onto nearby streets and remote villages, into temples and bars and through wedding processions and funerals. Having started out working weddings, Punjabi had become a keen-eyed and quick-footed photographer, rarely without a camera when the moment demanded it.
These outdoor images provide a crucial bridge between the regulated and consciously arranged dreamworld within the walls of his studio and the teeming human drama of everyday life just outside its doors. They create a vivid portrait of a time and place both unique in Punjabi’s vision and part of a much larger national idea — not Nagda as India, but Nagda as one of many Indias.
Looking beyond the local context of Nagda, we see that the trajectory of photography in India was comparable with many other countries around the world. This begs the question: could Punjabi’s portraits have parallels elsewhere? What might we gain from placing him in global dialogue with other studio photographers outside India?
Across the Global South, photography studios have historically been steeped in a particular kind of elite, colonial legacy, but as the medium became more accessible over time, they also became spaces for great experimentation and artistry. After the wave of decolonisation that swept much of Asia and Africa in the mid-twentieth century, a new era of studio photographers emerged, who engaged deeply with the distinct social contexts in which they worked and lived.
In looking for Punjabi’s Nagda elsewhere, three photographers stand out as particularly interesting points of contact: Hashem El Madani (1928–2017) from Lebanon, Malick Sidibé (1935–2016) from Mali and Pornsak Sakdaenprai (1938–) from Thailand. Considering Punjabi’s work alongside them, we can better appreciate the aesthetic and ethical concern they all shared: an abiding respect and faithfulness towards community and place.
Running Studio Shehrazade in his home city of Sidon, Hashem El Madani dedicated much of his fifty-year career — starting in 1948 — to photographing nearly all its residents, including through the Lebanese Civil War. During this time, it wasn’t uncommon for him to encourage his sitters to use props he had bought for his studio, a practice that he shared with Punjabi, whose images were often also furnished with prop ties, sunglasses, cameras, bottles and magazines. In this pair of images, Madani’s sitter, a young boy named Muwafaq el Rawas, pretends to turn the knobs on a radio, while Punjabi’s sitters, two unnamed men, pose holding a smaller transistor radio — the first in Nagda — up to their ears. In responding to the fervor for new technologies in Sidon and Nagda, both photographers were able to bring various objects, and the cultural capital they exhibited at the time, into their photographic arrangements.
Left image: Untitled, Suresh Punjabi. Right image: Akram Zaatari. Objects of study, The archive of Studio Shehrazade, Hashem El Madani: Studio Practices. 2007. Muwafaq el Rawas, now a Sheikh. Madani’s parents’ home, the studio, Saida, Lebanon, 1948-53. Hashem el Madani Collection. Courtesy of the Arab Image Foundation, Beirut.
Malick Sidibé opened his studio in Bamako two years after Mali gained independence from French rule in 1960. There, he quickly became renowned for his carefully arranged portraits and nightlife photographs. Like Punjabi, he was a fixture in the community he photographed and paid special attention to the way Bamako’s youth responded to an increasingly authoritarian regime at home and Western cultural influences from abroad. In these two images, using the characteristic sense of performance that informed both photographers’ work, two men, on opposite sides of the world and a decade apart, prop up their right leg, put a hand on their hip and strike a pose.
Left image: Untitled, Suresh Punjabi. Right image: Malick Sidibé.
Pornsak Sakdaenprai opened a small studio in the rural Phimai district in the northeast of Thailand in 1958 and began photographing his surrounding community there at a time when the countryside had begun rapidly integrating with urban centres. Similar to many of Punjabi’s group portraits, Sakdaenprai’s work captures the personal aspirations and sense of camaraderie between the villagers who frequented his studio and brought in their own aesthetic and cultural interests. In this pair of portraits, both photographers capture a set of friends whose poses express a discernible formality as well as an undeniable warmth.
Left image: Untitled, Suresh Punjabi. Right image: Pornsak Sakdaenprai — courtesy Kathmandu Photo Gallery (Bangkok).
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Now in his early 60s, Punjabi remembers the studio work he did in those early decades with a sense of fondness and gratitude. Many of his earliest sitters, now much older too, continue to cherish his portraits of them, which occupy living room and office walls, albums and wallets and an assortment of paperwork. Without Punjabi's hard work, and the love and support he received from the community he photographed, this archive would not exist today.
Despite the collaborative nature of his work, many of the years compressed in this archive were also made up of quiet moments alone — just Punjabi and his negatives. Whenever he wasn’t sleeping or eating, he was at the studio. On most days he opened shop at ten in the morning, working the counter before retouching images through the afternoon. By evening, his shutters came down but his work continued.
On some nights, when the central Indian summer packed his studio with dry heat, Punjabi reopened these shutters to let some cool air in, if only for a moment. Some early mornings, he took his camera out for a stroll, photographing the local temple, the empty streets and the rising sun — always trying something new. Looking back, he recalls the feeling that kept him going all those years...
“I was never lonely. Through these mute photographs, this town slowly started to become my family. We were having a conversation that needed no words.”
Suresh Punjabi is born in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and is one of six children in his large family.
Suresh Punjabi; courtesy Suresh Punjabi's private collection.
The Golden Era of Hindi Cinema begins to wane, as films from this era — such as Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) — continue to inspire the imaginations of thousands, including Punjabi.
Pyaasa poster; courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru.
India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru passes away, but the system of economic modernisation he established after India’s independence continues to impact the growth of cities and towns such as Indore and Nagda. The resulting policies also benefit Punjabi’s father, who experiences financial success as a construction contractor and the manager of a rice mill.
Jawaharlal Nehru by Yousuf Karsh; courtesy: Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru.
At the age of twelve, Punjabi begins receiving informal photography lessons from Srichand ji, the owner of Ajanta Studio in his neighbourhood — one of many photography studios in Indore at the time. He also studies the work of these other studios and begins practicing on his father’s AGFA Click III film camera.
Punjabi buys his first professional grade camera on a trip to Bombay (now Mumbai): a dual-format, twin-lens reflex (TLR) Yashica-635. Over the next few years, he develops his skill in portraiture and outdoor photography, travelling across rural and urban Madhya Pradesh, and at times assisting businesses such as Ajanta Studio with their wedding photography work.
Prompted by sudden and significant losses to his father’s businesses, Punjabi decides to become a professional photographer to supplement his family’s income. He markets his service under the name S. Punjabi and moves to the industrialising town of Nagda near Indore, working as a travelling wedding photographer. His move to Nagda during this time proves deeply significant as he spends the next four decades (and counting) documenting the lives of the people there.
In June, then-prime minister Indira Gandhi — Nehru’s daughter — declares a state of emergency across India, which lasts until March, 1977. A highly consequential event in India’s post-Independence history, the Emergency begins to change many Indian citizens’ relationship to the state, of which the administrative work of studio photographers such as Punjabi is a part.
At the age of twenty-two, and after building a reliable clientele through his travelling work, Punjabi opens Suhag Studio on Jawahar Marg in Nagda. The small 10 x 20 feet studio provides a range of services, including wedding photography and albums.
Suhag Studio business card; courtesy: Suresh Punjabi's private collection.
In December, Punjabi marries Rita Manchandani, with whom he continues to live in Nagda.
Punjabi continues to gain the recognition and respect of his community and has his first child, Rupali Punjabi, in August.
Rupali Punjabi; courtesy: Suresh Punjabi's private collection.
India undergoes economic liberalisation and becomes more service and market oriented, increasing the amount of foreign and private investment and reducing import tariffs and taxes. Punjabi shifts to a more affordable 35mm film format. Additionally, he begins using a digital camera — a Canon — and also purchases a digital printer, one of the first among the photography studios of Nagda. In the summer, he has his second child, Pratik Punjabi.
Pratik and Sureshi Punjabi; courtesy: Suresh Punjabi's private collection.
A monsoon storm strikes Nagda, flooding the town and almost destroying thousands of Punjabi’s film negatives stored in Suhag Studio. Helped by British scholar Christopher Pinney, Punjabi is able to recover nearly 50,000 of his negatives.
As part of the Delhi Photo Festival, an exhibition of Punjabi’s photographs is organised at the Art Heritage Gallery, New Delhi. Pinney publishes Artisan Camera: Studio Photography from Central India (Tara Books), featuring photographs by Punjabi.
Book cover for Artisan Camera: Studio Photography in Central India; courtesy: Tara Books.
After a few months in Melbourne, Australia, Punjabi’s son Pratik joins Suhag Studio, assisting his father in the photography business and expanding its technological scope.
Punjabi inaugurates a larger space for Suhag Studio, not far from its original location. Faces: The Portrait Studios in India and Georgia, an exhibition that presents Punjabi’s portraits alongside those of the Georgian photographer Shalva Alkhanaidze, opens at the Tbilisi Photo Festival in September and travels to the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, in November. It is co-curated by Pinney and Nestan Nijaradze, the co-founder and artistic director of the Tbilisi Photography and Multimedia Museum, Georgia.
Punjabi’s photographs are featured in Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present (Prestel), a survey of the hundred most influential photographers in India, written by Nathaniel Gaskell and Diva Gujral.
Book cover for Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present; courtesy: Prestel.
Suresh Punjabi gifts his archive to the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, where the images are conserved and the negatives cleaned and remastered by V. Karthik from Inspire Madras. Punjabi’s work also appears in an installation at the Chennai Photo Biennale. He continues managing Suhag Studio.
The Business of Dreams:
Photographs from the Studio of Suresh Punjabi
By Varun Nayar
Read more about Suresh Punjabi — his upbringing, influences and the portraits he produced at Suhag Studio in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, in the 1970s and 80s. In connecting his work to the popular culture of the time, ongoing political shifts and the personal aspirations of his sitters, this essay explores Punjabi’s community-focused approach to photography and the way he ran his studio business.
The Legacy of Studio Photography in India
By Varun Nayar
A detailed history of studio photography in India, moving from the colonial to the postcolonial to the contemporary. In tracing this evolution, this essay brings to light the intersection of commercial interests, power relations and changing sociopolitical attitudes that have defined and redefined photography’s role in the country.
Credits & Acknowledgements
This exhibition has been curated by Nathaniel Gaskell and Varun Nayar.
Nathaniel Gaskell is a curator, writer and director of the MAP Academy, and the former director of the Tasveer Gallery. He is the author of Photography in India: A Visual History from the 1850s to the Present (Prestel, 2018), and the editor of several other books on photography in Asia, including William Dalrymple’s The Historian’s Eye (HarperCollins India, 2018), Derry Moore’s In the Shadow of the Raj (Prestel, 2017), Karan Kapoor’s Time & Tide and Hikari: Contemporary Photography from Japan (Tasveer, 2016). He received a BA in Fine Art from the Arts University College, Bournemouth, and an MRes in Cultural Studies from the London Consortium. He lives between Bangalore and Singapore.
Varun Nayar is a writer, editor and researcher from Delhi. He is the research editor at MAP Academy, Bengaluru, and a fellow at the international literary magazine Words Without Borders. He received his MLitt in Postcolonial and World Literatures at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, prior to which he worked in magazine journalism in the United States.
We would like to thank and acknowledge those who have also played a key role in making the project possible: Suresh Punjabi, for his generosity, time and patience with our questions, as well as Pratik Punjabi and the rest of the team at Suhag Studio; Naveed Mulki, from the Faraway Originals film team; V. Karthik from Inspire Madras for his expertise in cleaning, caring for and capturing the original negatives and digital films, and to Abdul Rahiman for his assistance in post-processing; Samina Irani at HelpGrid for her translation assistance; at the MAP Academy, Siddharth Gandotra for his research assistance, Pooja Savansukha and Shrey Maurya for their editorial support and Ashwati Franklin for further editing and proofreading; at the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru, Prachi Gupta for her assistance in collections research.
We also acknowledge the work of scholar Christopher Pinney and his collaborations with institutions and galleries such as The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and Art Heritage, which first brought Punjabi’s work into public discourse and created a foundation upon which this exhibition hopes to build a sustained conversation.
What’s in a face? And what does it mean for us to look at these faces in particular, in this context, decades after the fact? Organised through a constant and open dialogue with Suresh Punjabi, the intent behind The Business of Dreams is not simply to present a selection of remarkable studio portraits from an ‘earlier’ India, but to engage with the social and material worlds from which they’ve emerged. In addition to being a subject, each face registers the possibility of many other narratives in which the photographic moment, and our distant and belated viewing of it, plays only a small part.
The further away curators and scholars are from the context of the work being exhibited, the greater the risk of generalising its subjects. This archive raises an important ethical question: how do we convey the individual agency of each sitter while also grasping at a larger understanding of Punjabi’s life and work over the decades? In part, the answer is to know what we don’t know, and explicitly bring that partiality into our approach. In rejecting a strictly anthropological mode, the exhibition encourages a degree of speculation – from the curators as well as Punjabi – over how each work might be mediated and annotated. While our curatorial voice is never absent (if it ever can be), its intervention is focused on bringing varied references and sources into the exhibitionary space; none claiming authority but each attempting to open up new, and at times contradictory, avenues of engagement.
The image is not a fixed or self-contained unit of historical argument. Acknowledging this has meant exhibiting Punjabi’s archive through the various exchanges and relations it makes visible across images, as opposed to treating each as a distinct photographic ‘object.’ The presumed facticity of, say, a certain prop appearing in a particular photograph is constantly interrupted by the value the sitter ascribes to it – whether personal, social or commercial. Our decision to highlight the multiplicity of these exchanges was inspired by Punjabi’s own approach to the studio as a place of community and convergence, not containment; where the sitter co-produces the final image. Before the disarticulation of photography in the twenty-first century, this community-focused approach was commonplace in thousands of studios across small and mid-sized towns in India, but has rarely been included in discussions about the country’s photographic history.
“A good exhibition is never the last word on its subject,” writes the American artist, scholar and curator Robert Storr. Presenting Punjabi’s archive in the manner that we have is undeniably an act of selection – and so, intervention – but our treatment remains committed to producing a necessary point of departure, and arguing for a wider and more inclusive view of photography in the country. If each face tells a story, then this exhibition is a patchwork of people, personal histories, social contexts, references and influences, each refracted through the world Suhag Studio has built.