In memory of a pioneering photographer

Captured memories: Biddanda Ponnappa Mandappa (second from left) with his brothers, sisters and other relatives, on his wedding day.

My maternal grandfather, Biddanda Ponnappa Mandappa, lived in Palangala village near Virajpet in Kodagu. I remember Palangala during my childhood days in the 1950s and 1960s as a remote place, which took more than half a day to reach from our home in Gonikoppal. The last one kilometre had to be covered by foot as there was no motorable road. However, once we reached this idyllic pristine place, it used to be pure bliss. Grandfather’s house was on the foothills of Mallethirke hill atop which there is a beautiful temple.

Mandappa ajja passed away in 1940, before I was born, but he was a constant reminder to all his grandchildren who used to visit Palangala during vacation. Every nook and corner of the walls in the house used to be covered with vintage photographs taken by grandfather. Unfortunately, the house is unoccupied now, and most of the photographs have disappeared.

Favourite pastime

Photography was my grandfather’s passionate hobby which he pursued at a time when it was not too prevalent in India. He used to not only click the camera but also develop the films and take prints. He had a darkroom and all the chemicals and equipment required to pursue his favourite pastime.

I recollect seeing the large box camera mounted on a tripod, which my uncles used occasionally. The entire body of the camera and the tripod stand were made of wood. Photographic film was fixed on to a wooden frame in the darkroom and loaded at the back of the camera. Only one photograph could be taken at a time. A black cloth was used to cover the camera to prevent any light leaking into the chamber and accidentally exposing the film. After everyone stood in front of the camera the focusing was done manually by adjusting the lens fixed at one end of a bellow. It had a long cable, which the photographer used to ‘selfie-click’ and include himself in the photograph.

Mandappa ajja was in great demand those days to take group photographs of his relatives, friends and their families, especially of newlyweds. Even now, several homes in and around Virajpet have vintage photographs taken by my grandfather a century ago.

Here is a photograph that was taken on the day my grandfather got married in 1915. (His eldest son, Col BM Chengappa, was born in 1917. Col Chengappa was a World War II veteran.

My grandfather and his younger brother, Devaiah, got married on the same day. The photograph is that of the grandfather (second from left), along with his three brothers, and four sisters who are seated.

My grandfather and his brother Devaiah lived in the same house in perfect harmony. Both the brothers had ten children each! I remember, there were enough grandchildren to make up two hockey teams! And that was one of the games we played on the coffee drying yard. I still nostalgically recollect all of us wandering in the nearby forest to collect wild berries. Another favourite activity was catching fish and crabs in the crystal-clear waters of the brook that cascaded from the mountain. In the evenings, it was listening to the two grandmothers who would tell us stories under the dimly lit kerosene lamps. Every meal was like sitting in a mini hostel mess. Before dinner, all the children of varying ages had to sing ‘Swami devane lokapalane…,’ in front of pictures of deities and the traditional thook bolucha (hanging oil lamp).

Yes, those were the days!

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