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In a photographer's footsteps


A Nicholas Bros. photograph of Albert Penn (right) and Willie Misquith (left).

Following in the footsteps of Albert (A.T.W.) Penn and photographing in the present what Albert Penn had in the past, has been Christopher Penn, his great-grandson. A book of the past and the present, particularly of the Nilgiris, could well result. Chris Penn was in Madras recently, once again on the trail of his great-grandfather. Catching up with him in Madras, I also caught up with Albert Penn through him.

Albert was just 16 when he arrived in Madras in the mid-1860s, no reason known for why he left home as a 12-year-old and why he arrived here, a place where he knew no one. But he soon got employment with Nicholas Bros., leading photographers in the city at the time and a business managed by J. P. Nicholas. The partnership became Nicholas and Curths in 1868 and Nicholas & Co. in 1873. The company long pre-dated another 19th Century European photographic firm whose name survived in Madras till 1987, (though the partners had parted company with it in the 1940s). Better known, consequently, than Nicholas & Co. in Madras in more recent times, mainly because it survived into these times, was Klein & Peyerl, which had been founded as Wiele & Klein c. 1890.

Albert worked for Nicholas in Ooty where he photographed the magnificent scenery, the tribals and the European population, compiling in the process a unique picture of the Nilgiris and life in them. No photographer, before or after, has ever photographed the Nilgiris as he had done. His ethnographic photographs present a splendid documentation of tribals not only in the Blue Mountains but also elsewhere in South India. His dramatic - and heart-rending - pictures of life in the Famine Relief Camps in Bangalore in 1877 sear the conscience. On the other hand, his scenic views are pictures of beauty, revealing an artist's touch. But there is also his commercial photography, ranging from European social life in Snooty Ooty to an unbroken - but for one year - series of pictures of the participants in the Ooty Hunt from the mid-1870s to 1910, when he and his family took a break in England and could only return after the Great War had ended.

Price's classic Ootacamund — A History, published in 1908, is illustrated with Albert Penn's photographs, his name appearing under each one in the original edition. Many of his pictures were also used to illustrate Edgar Thurston's Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1909). Other pictures are today in photographic archives in the U.K., U.S.A., Switzerland and France. I wonder how many originals are in India.

But a picture from Chris Penn's collection that captured my interest the most is the one accompanying today's column. It is of two young music-lovers, Albert Penn and William A. Misquith, taken in 1907. Willie Misquith, according to Chris Penn, played the organ, piano, violin, concertina and several other instruments. He was the organist of St. Stephen's in Ooty and St. Matthias' in Vepery. He was also choirmaster of St. Matthias' and St. Thomas', San Thomι. Albert, when he was in Madras, was in the choir at St. Matthias' and for decades a member of the St. Stephen's choir. Albert died in Coonoor in 1924 and is buried in the Tiger Hill cemetery there.

Today's picture intrigued me because Misquith & Co. was once a Madras landmark at Round Tana, on the Wallajah Road curve, and in more recent times became Musee Musicals. Misquith & Co. was founded in 1842 by Wallace Misquith. It not only sold Western musical instruments but it also had music salons on its first floor, for hire by the hour to those who wanted to practise. Willie, possibly Wallace's son - he died in 1888 when he was 37 - taught music, tuned pianos and repaired musical instruments.

Misquith's was bought by a Cohen in 1907 who developed it as a hall of entertainment, its first floor being used to screen films in 1913. Called Empire Cinema, it had to close down after a fire in 1914. Later that year, theatre mogul J.F. Madan of Calcutta bought it and changed the name to Elphinstone, his organisation's signature name. In 1915 he bought the Misquith Building and made the Elphinstone a permanent cinema theatre, the first in Madras with a balcony.

The New Elphinstone Theatre was built across the way from it in 1932 by Madan's great rival, Sohrab Modi


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