Bombay Talkies curator Fiona Trigg picks apart the process of preservation
The Bombay Talkies exhibition is drawn from a collection of over 3,000 documents, letters, photos and memorabilia that belongs to three Melbourne brothers – Walter, Peter and Paul Dietze. Their grandfather was celebrated Indian film producer and actor, Himansu Rai, who co-founded the Bombay Talkies film studio with his wife, actress Devika Rani. During the 1930s and 40s, Bombay Talkies released 40 films, including hits Achhut Kanya (1936), Kismet (1943) and Mahal (1949).
The Dietze collection is an important piece of Indian film history. It’s rare for such a large collection of letters and other documents to have been kept together and looked after, despite the challenges of the Indian climate and the culture of commercial film production, which tends to focus on the business at hand rather than preserving its past.
After Himansu’s death in 1940, Devika continued to run the studio until 1945, when she married Russian painter Svetoslav Roerich. Svetoslav’s father, Nicholas Roerich was a painter and peace campaigner, and there is a museum in New York that honours his life’s work. After her death in 1994, Devika’s papers ended up in the Roerich museum. When Peter Dietze was researching his grandfather’s life, he visited the museum, which gifted the Bombay Talkies archive to him, as Himansu’s direct descendant. Peter brought the material back to Melbourne, but hopes one day to find it a suitable home back in India.
We have selected about 70 original items to display in the exhibition, plus a few reproductions and selected footage from the films they made. The documents have been prepared by our registrar Sarah Caldwell.
With the objects on display dating from early 1920s through to 1945, their age and fragility offer a few restrictions in the way that they can be handled and displayed, but they tell us so much about the lives and times of the people who wrote and received them. Devika liked to doodle on her mail, so many of the documents feature small red ink flowers, while Himansu drafted his letters in pencil, his writing getting wilder and larger as he struggled to convince investors in his early film projects to provide yet more funds.
Many of the letters and documents are on incredibly thin paper, which is now brittle and prone to tearing, so has to be handled with extreme care. Humidity has curled and shrunk the paper, so few documents on display have straight or even edges. Mounts have had to be carefully cut for each individual item.
Many of the documents were bound in folders with metal clasps, resulting in rust marks. Paper is also subject to ‘foxing’, the appearance of brown tarnishes due to moisture exposure over the years.
Some of the folders that the documents were originally stored were able to be undone to display individual items, but in other cases, opening the folders would damage the documents, so these were unable to be displayed.
The documents include film stills, business letters sent to and from Devika and Himansu, which often feature elaborate letter heads typical of the 1930s and 40s, personal letters hand written in ink and the occasional telegram.