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Our Flat-Cap Photographers

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By: Ganesh Saili

Partition found a twenty year old Bhanu Jasani living in Lahore being herded into a train chugging off to Dehradun. Spending time in a refugee camp in Clement Town he waited his while before making a break for the hills. He loved the place, it was a cute little place where he rented a shop on the ground floor of the Mussoorie Library to start Roopkala Studio.

‘My father took his early pictures with a box camera, including one of the small batch of officer trainees that passed out of the National Academy of Administration at the Charleville in 1960 on 10 x 12 inch glass negatives,’ his son Puneet Jasani, tells me. ‘Alongside him walked a coolie carrying a bulky wooden tripod.’

Bhanu was a happy-go-lucky kind of person. On days when there was no sun, he smiled to create his own sunshine, and he topped it all with a flat-cap. It’s what the Irish call a paddy cap or the Kiwis, a cheese-cutter. It’s rakish tilt defined Bhanu’s attitude for the day.

Elsewhere, in the nineteenth century, Julien Rust, a Burgher of mixed Portuguese and Sri Lankan descent, wore a similar cap. Fifty years later, Princess Sita of Kapurthala remembered the flat-cap – that and his little daughter, dressed like a doll, always besides him on his photo-shoots.

How I wish I had asked her to tell me more! But silly me, I let the moment slip through my fingers.

What has refused to slip through is the feeling that the ghosts of our early photographers peer over my shoulder, glaring at me are the spirits of Thomas Alfred Rust and his son, Julien Geoffrey. They stalk me, guiding me as I track down their old images of this hill station.

T.A. Rust in 1869 began in Calcutta as an apprentice to F.W. Baker. In the next five years, he set up five studios in Allahabad, Mussoorie, Landour, Muree and Meerut. And when Papa Rust passed away, his son Julian got rid of four, retaining the one at Regent House in Kulri. It was where D.S. Bora’s Studio would come up one day.

The Rust story has its origins in Kandy, Sri Lanka. They heard stories of the rich and famous flocking to the hills to the north. It was a godsend to one familiar with the basics of the new technology that had come of age. They called it ‘photography’. Arriving here in 1874, Thomas went from door to door; home to home; bungalow to bungalow taking pictures for a period of forty years after which they turned their landscapes into postcards. These proved to be an instant hit with residents, tourists and visitors. In the general scheme of things, their work represents the best of the last and the last of the best. Occasionally the odd picture turns up in antiquarian shops to be quickly snapped up by collectors.

Facing bleak prospects in the 1930s, Julian sold off the business to move with his Irish wife, Elizabeth Anne Nelligan to South Africa. They had four children: Cecil, Violet, Helen and an infant who succumbed to diphtheria. Slowly, over time, money dried up, forcing Helen Maude – the one who Julien ‘dressed like a doll’ – to sell the sprawling Mount Farion Estate and resentfully she moved into ‘the old cowshed’.

None of the three children married. Cecil was Chairman of the Times of Ceylon, when he passed away in 1960 aged fifty-five. Violet’s death in 1974, left Helen devastated and by 1982, ‘the light had gone out of her life.’ Though she lived on, but with a slightly hazy memory of better times and an unfailing faith in God.

‘He looks after me,’ she would the odd visitor. ‘I have no troubles.’ Flipping through the pages of the family Bible, with the family crest emblazoned across it: ‘Fortis et Stablis’ or brave and steadfast – perhaps that best describes Helen Maude Rust last days.

On 17th March 2004, Bhanu Jasani passed away. It signalled the end of an era. Our flat-cap photographers had reached the edge of the brim.

(Ganesh Saili born andhome-grown in the hillsbelongs to those select fewwhose words are illustratedby their own pictures.Author of two dozenbooks; some translatedinto twenty languages, hiswork has found recognitionworld-wide.)