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COLUMN ONE

A time-lapse portrait of India

An 1860s-era camera shows how high- and low-tech devices keep the country running, sometimes more smoothly than others. Rickshaw ride to the space agency, anyone?

September 02, 2009|Mark Magnier

Chand's grandfather, a social worker and small-time politician, became fascinated by photography and used to go to a nearby museum to see the cameras on display. Grandpa was on good terms with the British, Chand says, and one day he revealed his passion for photography to an officer, who told someone in the palace.

Although the story at this point gets hazier than one of Chand's old photos, the upshot is that Chand's grandfather somehow received the camera as a gift of the royal family.

The rest is history.

India has long enjoyed its share of useful contraptions, even if they aren't always cutting edge. With its rich civilization, India was a great scientific innovator in ancient times, says Deepak Kumar, a professor of science history at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, only to "rather unfortunately" lose out to Europe after about AD 1100 and never recover.

"We played with marbles while you played with glass, the basic technology leading to the cellphone," Kumar says. Now "we're a poor country and foreign technology can be very expensive."

After gaining independence from Britain, India adopted policies meant to keep foreign competitors out, setting high tariffs on Japanese gizmos and German widgets. A side effect, however, was that homegrown companies felt little pressure to innovate.

India's infamous bureaucracy, with its emphasis on hierarchy and procedure, has also impeded change, especially when it has involved labor-saving technologies in such a populous country. A long-standing joke has it that India's IT industry grew while Delhi slept.

In July, India's comptroller and auditor-general revealed that 30,000 applicants at employment centers in Tamil Nadu state may have lost their shot at jobs because non-Y2K compliant computers believed that their applications had been filed between 1900 and 1908. The outdated software also listed 348 candidates as being 100 years or older.

But don't talk to Chand about outdated. His trusty old box has supported his wife and two sons, albeit with some ups and downs. His clientele includes locals and tourists, he says proudly, some from as far away as Russia and Thailand. He's out here every day, he says, with neither rain, hail, heat or sun able to keep him from his appointed images. On a bad day he'll earn nothing, on a good day up to $18, considered a good working-class wage.

Will either of his sons, ages 6 and 11, go into the business? "They only like the new stuff, snazzy cellphones, computer games, digital this-and-that," he says. "It will probably end with me."

He stops a minute, mulling the consequences.

"Even after I retire, though, I'll keep a plaque on my gate," he says. "That way anyone who wants to get their portrait taken the old-fashioned way can still do it."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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