Alappuzha, Kerala, 1942: It was the year that changed the landscape of photography in India. The year that 16-year-old K. Karunakaran invented the Vageeswari, which went on to become one of the world’s iconic cameras.
“I often wonder how my father came up with the idea of a camera,” says Kannan, Karunakaran’s son. “This boy from a small seaside town with limited financial and technical support. I don’t think many people could invent a best-selling field camera, given his circumstances and how young he was.”
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But Karunakaran was quite the inventor. During World War II, he was studying at SB College in Changanassery, a reputed institution in Kerala to this day. His father, Kunju Kunju Bhagavathar, was a part-time musician who repaired instruments for a living. Karunakaran would help out. One day Padmanabhan Nair, who owned a studio in Alappuzha, came in to get the bellows of his foreign-made camera repaired. It took Bhagavathar days but he fixed it. Impressed, Nair persuaded Bhagavathar to make cameras. The person who rose to the challenge, however, was Bhagavathar’s son Karunakaran.
“My father started collecting books and magazines on the various aspects of camera technology that were written in England and Germany,” Kannan says. “He went to Madras (Chennai) and Bombay (Mumbai) to buy camera parts. He took it very seriously.” He disassembled a field camera and drew a model on paper. He made every single part himself, except the lens, which was imported from Germany. The result was the well-crafted, durable teakwood Vageeswari, with its brass clips and screws, available at a fraction of the price of foreign-made cameras.
Vivek Vilasini, a Kochi-based artist who spent considerable time with Karunakaran in 2011-12, says, “When he made the first camera, his father threw it away.” But Karunakaran felt he was on to something big and moved to another studio to work on it.
“Vageeswari was way ahead in terms of its finish and quality compared to any field cameras of the time,” Kannan says. The first camera was sold for ₹250 to a studio in Alappuzha. Its name came from the fact that the family worked with the veena and worshipped the goddess Saraswati (also known as Vaageswari). The camera had eight variants—from smaller ones used to take passport-sized photographs to larger ones for group pictures. Gradually, as its popularity grew, Karunakaran employed 30 people to make 100 cameras a month. He didn’t have to look for clients, people came to him. “If you opened a studio in those days, you needed a camera that could take group photos,” says Vilasini. “The Vageeswari had that format and that was its USP.”
“This camera was designed and made to last 40-50 years without any need for repair,” says Thrissur-based Satheesh Nair, who restores Vageeswari cameras. “It ruled the market for almost four decades.” It was even used by forensic departments and fingerprinting experts around the country.
“In the 1980s, the Vageeswari started to fade because more compact and advanced cameras came in,” says Nair, who started out as a photographer—the Vageeswari was his first camera in the 1970s. “A lot of studios shut shop in Kerala once 35mm and 120mm film compact cameras came in. Then followed digital technology and that was the end for the Vageeswari.”
Nair, however, was fond of the Vageeswari. And they kept finding their way to him. “In 2015, I decided to dedicate myself to restoring Vageeswari cameras,” he says. He gets the cameras from old studios, restores them and sells them for prices upwards of ₹15,000. But not to just anyone. “The Vageeswari is part of history; it was made in Kerala, it’s rare. It’s only for those who truly appreciate it and can learn how to use and work with it.”
One of his customers, Kollam-based artist and photographer Anu John David, recently showed his work at the Lokame Tharavadu in Alappuzha, an exhibition of the work of artists who trace their roots to Kerala. “I felt I should do something around the history and landscape of Alappuzha using the Vageeswari camera,” says David.
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The first obstacle was acquiring a working camera. “Those who had it were antique collectors and didn’t want to part with it,” he says. “Others quoted exorbitant amounts.” Finally, Nair sold him one; he doesn’t want to disclose the cost. The bigger challenge was working with film slides, he had just two. He could take four images per outing; he then had to develop the film and reload the slides.
He chose 16 of his 35 working images for the exhibit, reverse-painting on to the black and white negatives to create images that show Alappuzha through the lens of the Vageeswari. “I had to make sure the composition, light, focus…all of it had to be correct. You just can’t afford to waste film. It helped me improve my photography skills,” says David, who has been a digital photographer for eight years. “The darkroom experience is important for a photographer. But digital doesn’t give you that. The Vageeswari let me take that leap of faith and gave me trust in myself as an artist.”
He is now planning a series that looks at communism in Kerala as seen by the Vageeswari. “If you look at other cameras of the time, they were muscular, heavy and bulky, but the Vageeswari is cute.” Once folded, it looks like a book.
Karunakaran died in 2016 at the age of 90. The Vageeswari lives on.
Kochi-based Anubha George writes on Kerala culture.
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