When I flipped through the thick pages of my ‘Lovely Memories’ photo album during my days at Flat no 11 Palace Court, the sophisticated execution of photos of my family members including my parents dressed to kill and my two sisters and a brother brought alive memories of a time when we all lived happily together in the mid-1950s. These images frozen in time were snapped by Ahmed Ali, an ace photographer who was a legend in his life time.
When informed of his sudden end at his home in Hindusthan Park by his wife Ranu Ali on Tuesday May 24, I was overwhelmed with shock. My association with Ahmed Ali goes back to my childhood days in Palace Court when his photographic studio UNICA was located on the ground floor adjacent to my flat and extends to the time when I reached maturity as an adult and interacted with him in connection with two features I penned for this paper which covered a photographic and painting exhibition respectively.
I still remember how he made my mother look ravishingly beautiful adorned in her best jewelry. He made her look so elegant and regal that it prompted my Jewish childhood friend to comment when he noticed the framed photograph in my spacious sitting room to say, “Your mother looks so aristocratic, somewhat like a duchess.” All credit goes to Ahmed Ali with his keen powers of observation in the nitty-gritty of meticulous details about his camera angles and ensuring that the light and shade contrasts matched the sharpness of his lens.
Known widely for his industrial and advertising photography, Ali was also noted for his glamour photography. His area of interest even extended to nude photography. We as children to satiate our nasty curiosity would mischievously peep through the curtains of his studio when his second wife Philomena would pose in the nude for him. Our rude interruption would evoke the worst anger in him and he drove us away angrily for disrupting his concentration.
Of course, Ahmed Ali would leave no stone unturned in his pioneering effort to discover and foray into hitherto unknown territory where the brave rush in and the angels fear to tread. In 1956, he covered wide distances to arrive at Bastar in Chhattisgarh and snapped photos of bare-bodied Santhal women.
For those interested in anthropology and the social sciences, Ahmed Ali&’s photography of the heritage of Bastar tribals is nothing short of brilliant and may be deemed a researcher&’s treasure trove (photo shows Ali with an image from this series). A coffee table tome of Bastar&’s tribal culture and women managed to impress Congress President Sonia Gandhi, who was not only surprised but was all praise for this dedicated and well researched anthropological photo essay.
Ahmed Ali worked in an era when gun powder was used for flashlights and the images were recorded and developed by hand in a dark room. His fame as an industrial and advertising photographer made him rub shoulders with political big wigs and celebrities such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Padmaja Naidu, Satyajit Ray, Amitabh Bachchan and Suchitra Sen who all admired him for his photographic acumen.
Photographers, among them the more famous Nemai Ghosh, (Ray&’s still photographer) revere Ahmed Ali as their guru. His self-discipline and sincere dedication to work are rare in individuals of the present age. I recall how he would rush to his studio in Palace Court in a jeep to tend to his immediate assignments. His passing away at the age of 95 marks the end of an era.