In the narrow lanes of Sowcarpet, one of Chennai’s oldest areas known for its shops selling a variety of sweets and discuss products, shopping items and also considered the hub of the city’s North Indian community, we met Anand Kumar Bhowmick, 56, at Kasi Chetty Street when he was busy selling plastic items to customers. It may be hard to believe if someone says that this man has a huge collection of rare photographs.
A box lined with two rows of black and white photos can be found near his shop. These photos are part of his more than 30,000 photo collections. To commemorate the birth and death anniversaries of famous personalities and important historical events, Anand displays these photos in front of his shop.
The other days, the carton bears the photos of MG Ramachandran, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, whom Anand hails as his “God”. Anand says he was unconscious for two days after learning of MGR’s disappearance on December 24, 1987.
“I consider him my god. I was first introduced to MGR by my dad who took me to a screening of his film, ‘Ulagam Sutrum Valiban‘…I was drawn to him from that day on. His charisma, the way he wore his black sunglasses and carefully accepted garlands from fans and executives without disturbing his hat, all made him look superhuman. I started collecting his photographs from that day. I never start any job without loving it. Every day, I first offer my prayers to him, then I begin my work. I have a different energy when I think of him. Puratchi Thalaivar is my life, his movies are not just movies but are life lessons, he always preached good things on screen. There was no one like him and there never will be, even in the future,” he says.
Anand’s mind works like a computer. While talking about his collections, he shows a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi stepping off a ship and mentions that Gandhi never traveled by air to any country.
From World War I and World War II to Dandi March, from the Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose meeting Adolf Hitler to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Anand remembers the exact dates and personalities involved, apart from other unknown facts.
When one looks carefully at its collections, one can find a lot of materials related to wars. Asked about them, Anand says he wants future generations to understand the impact of these wars and how people have suffered because of the decisions of their leaders.
“There should never be war in the future, countries should coexist and seek an amicable solution, no matter how different they are. If you want to see the impact of war, come visit my shop,” he says.
It also has a huge collection of photos of actors from Charlie Chaplin to Dilip Kumar in their early years. In his own words, Anand has a collection of photos of everything – from Niagara Falls to actress Nayanthara.
Anand started collecting photographs when he was 10 years old with the money he could save. He says he had a larger collection of photos, negative prints, CDs, hard drives and books donated by his friends from other countries, but it was all washed away by the Chennai floods in 2015.
“I clung to the statue of Periyar (Dravidian ideologue EV Periyar) at T Nagar for two days. I even thought about going home to take these pictures but my friends and family stopped me. I would have been happier if I had died and the photographs had been kept, because they were everything to me. All the things that were kept on the ground floor of my house were taken away. All the rare books offered by certain foreigners… have been taken away. If I search them online now, a single item costs between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000 and some of them are not even available,” he claims.
Anand doesn’t necessarily use his phone or any other gadget, he even jots down the names and numbers of people he meets in a diary. He says the satisfaction he gets when he reads the notes can’t be gotten any other way.
When asked how he collects his photographs, Anand says he depends on book fairs, magazines and newspapers.
“Book fairs have been my backbone…I’ve traveled across the country collecting photographs. I did it with my own money. Part of my income goes to the family, but the rest is dedicated solely to collecting the photos,” he says.
Most of Anand’s collections are vintage in nature. He says black and white photos are magical and have an artistic flair that can never be felt in color images.
“In the black and white photographs, all our concentration is on the single subject… It leaves us to ponder, we begin to imagine how this or that could have happened at that time, when it is not the case in color photographs. More than the subject, our focus shifts to the background, the dresses and other things captured in the photo,” he says.
Every year during the Madras Day celebrations, Anand exhibits a few rare photographs of the city in front of his shop. He is often invited as a guest in several institutions to exhibit his photographs and talk about their meaning.
“I have many photographs of old Madras from the 18th and 19th century. I have pictures of the central station during its construction,” he notes.
He says he had the opportunity to exhibit his work to former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, MGR, Kalaignar Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa, and earned their praise.
Vishaka Bhowmick, Anand’s wife, says that despite resistance from their family, she has never discouraged her husband from doing what he loves.
“He (Anand) collected these photographs from an early age. After my marriage, I did not understand why he collected photographs, and I even told him to stop because it affected us economically. But I gradually understood how passionate he was about this activity. He used to cut photographs out of books, magazines and laminate them. Even now family members are advising me to ask him to stop and do something better to earn more, but I tell them my husband is doing what he loves and I have no qualms about that. topic,” she said.
Anand’s next photo exhibit is believed to be at the 44th International Chess Olympiad, which is scheduled to take place at Mamallapuram near Chennai from July 28 to August 10. He says he would collect photographs of the event and of the top chess players who are expected to participate in it.
Asked about his future plans, Anand says collecting photos has become part of his life and he will continue to do so until his last breath.