Nestled in New Delhi’s bustling Connaught Place area, the facade of Mahatta & Co. renders it to be any other new-fangled photo studio. Banners advertising trappings of cutting-edge digital imagery jostle for space; prints are offered in 11 sizes. Only the Victorian-era props in the studio floor bear witness to the fact that the chain is soon approaching its centenary year.

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Madan Mehta, 78, the family-run store’s present owner, has been aggressive in his efforts to reinvent what’s on offer. His son, Pavan, points to the studio’s newest attraction: digitally captured images blown up and printed on canvas to simulate vintage portraiture. “Digital prints, or even digital display screens, aren’t enough any more," he says, “People want art." There’s a sample canvas of a middle-aged couple—which was ordered in a 20x30 inches size—the woman posed on a high-backed wooden chair; the man resting his hands on a three-legged table stacked with hardback books; washed in sepia.

There are other entrepreneurs who seem to believe that portraiture is making a grand return, flagging a trend to freeze fast-disintegrating joint families together—in a perfect frame—before they wane further.

The shape of things: (top) A portrait, c. 1910 (Rex Photo Studio), from the exhibition The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai c.1855-1940 by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts. The four seated on the right are a family unit composed to form a double triangle. Courtesy The Alkazi Collection of Photography; and (right) contemporary portrait photographer Karan Dhawan’s family portrait also employs a triangular composition.

Across the country, down in Bangalore’s Church Street, Tejinder and Ritesh Kapoor have come inside the Meri Yaadein photo studio to get a family portrait shot a week before their son Ayush is to have his head sheared. It takes two toffees and a couple of studio employees to get their one-year-old to oblige. After a couple of hours, the job is done: A family portrait has been clicked.

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When Mohammad Anwar, a US-based entrepreneur, first came to India for a visit a couple of years ago, he was struck by the fact that portraiture was limited to small-scale set-ups. “We found that there were just these little studios that did both photos and videos for weddings," he says. The market vacuum was signal enough to set up the first full-spectrum photo studio with make-up and wardrobe assistance and the response has been overwhelming. The first Bangalore outfit opened in November 2009 and broke even within two months. Soon, a second studio was set up. As the director of Meri Yaadein—the India wing of, a US-based photography company—Anwar has grand expansion plans. A third studio is to open soon, while franchises in Chennai and Hyderabad are being explored.

New vision: Berry at the Portrait Salon. A 6x8ft oil-on-canvas portrait of his extended family hangs behind him. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Back in New Delhi, Rakesh Berry, a retired textile trader, set up what he calls “India’s first commissioned portrait studio" only a few months ago. It was a mediated decision. Berry’s son, an avid collector, was gifted a family portrait by a young artist whose work he’d been collecting. The massive 6x8ft oil-on-canvas, featuring the Berrys’ extended 11-member family, which hung on their living room wall, elicited such a burst of inquiries from friends and relatives that the Berrys were convinced about the immense market potential in an old-fashioned portrait studio. Set in the ground floor of a mall, the Portrait Salon offers oil, watercolour, and pen and ink portraits. Fibre-glass sculptures are also on the menu but haven’t had any takers yet. The painted works are priced anywhere between 10,000 and 5 lakh depending on the medium, size and artist. Clients don’t, however, actually need to give sittings. “People like the concept of a painted portrait like old days but they don’t really have the patience any more," says Berry. So Portrait Salon offers to work with a photograph. Since faces are the most demanding of an artist’s time, family portraits are priced depending on the number of people, irrespective of size. Clients can also go for the unconventional. At the gallery space, there hangs a seven-member family portrait painted in a non-linear plane with faces and bodies juxtaposed like that in a graphic novel. In another, a couple’s faces have been transposed in a fairytale setting—gowns, castles, et al. Even though the Portrait Salon is yet to launch in Delhi formally, the Berrys have already picked up a franchise in Hyderabad and one in Mumbai is on the cards.

Freeze frame: Amita and Arun Ashok pose at Meri Yaadein. Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Neither of the studios have had to advertise yet. “We don’t use any conventional marketing strategies, almost 70% clients walk in because they spotted the store or have heard of us," says Anwar. Meri Yaadein has a “Don’t pay if you’re not happy" policy, stemming from the chain’s international policies. The make-up, wardrobe assistance, shoot and reviewing process are all free. You can request for a print only if you like what you see. Meri Yaadein runs packed days on weekends, with up to 18 shoots on a day. Analysing client requests at Mahatta & Co., Pavan hints at a “retro revival", pulling the curtains off the irony that modern technology is being used to recreate the vintage. Although some of this is deliberate, more poignant is the fact that despite faster cameras and easy-to-carry lights, the family portrait hasn’t changed in essence from its 19th century cousin. One can trace the roots of modern-day portraiture to the initial aesthetics that emerged at the inception of the medium. Early studios, such as Bourne & Shepherd and Raja Deen Dayal & Sons, were instrumental in establishing prototypes of postures, props and mannerisms. Dayal, in the 1870s, began to foreground his portraits with objects befitting the sitter’s status or sex. Where his images had painted backdrops of gardens or flowers, today Mahatta & Co. produces superbly finished Photoshop works of couples shot at their studio and superimposed with the Boston skyline or Swiss meadows a la Yash Chopra.

New bottle, old wine

Visitors to the ongoing exhibition of the first Indian photographer, Raja Deen Dayal’s portraits at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi (on view till 28 February), would note that apart from the fact that the stoic, upright postures have softened, the only big inclusion over the century is the smile.

Stationed between the family and couple portraits at the exhibition titled Raja Deen Dayal: The Studio Archives, there’s a plaque titled “Hints to Sitters" in which Dayal writes: “To be a really successful picture, the sitter’s happiest expression must be caught"(see box, Timeless diktats).

“It is the concept of what is a happy picture that has changed over time," says museologist Pramod Kumar K.G., who has co-curated the show, adding that the intent of producing the portrait also goes a long way. “These (19th century) photographs of royals and nobles, as is the case with the painted portraits that preceded them, were made in sets of 50 or more as autographed mementoes to be circulated to other royals," explains Kumar, adding, “It was a formal set-up where smiling was not considered appropriate."

Today, as a couple we meet at Meri Yaadein tells us, portraits are commissioned to be hung in living room or bedroom walls. Immense effort is put into keeping things “natural". During a session with a young couple, Amita and Arun Ashok at Meri Yaadein, we keep hearing reassurances of a “natural look" by the in-house make-up artist. Amita confesses they’re there for a wall adornment. “We got married two years ago, and in most pictures, we look tired and have these forced smiles. We don’t have anything that we can put up at our place," says Amita. After employing the make-up and wardrobe services offered at the studio and an elaborate review process in a room with a large LCD screen, they pick a 8,000 package that gives them an assortment of pictures in various sizes, including the one they plan to frame. They sit with their backs to each other, a quirky pose given that most couples and families continue to be arranged in standard single- or double-triangle compositions.

The catalogue for an exhibition in February this year by the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts—which has a formidable collection of vintage portraits—The Artful Pose: Early Studio Photography in Mumbai c.1855-1940, highlighted the social dynamics and hierarchies reinforced in vintage portraits. Compositions mirrored the rules of European painting: Sitters were arranged in triangular shapes for visual harmony. When asked about new trends in compositions, Karan Dhawan, a 24-year-old freelance portrait photographer, says he places families in “house" shapes to connote stability and domestic harmony (these “houses" are triangles). “If it is a couple, the man must always be positioned behind. For families, the parents must envelop the children," he explains by way of new-age trends.

Also, vanity continues to lie at the heart of portrait-making. Till the mid-20th century, when studio photographers used large-format cameras that produced large negatives, artists fixed a light source behind the negative and did touch-up work with pencils for skin flaws and gaps that hadn’t developed properly. At the second stage after printing, gaps on the surface were manually filled. While this sometimes resulted in too red lips or a too prominent streak of vermillion on the foreheads of married women because of the artist’s personal notions of aesthetics and custom, the process is far more sophisticated today. Studio owners share that clients rarely complain of digital manipulations. If a family moment is being frozen for posterity, so much better if it is airbrushed and colour-corrected to perfection.

While Anwar and Berry have enough faith in their clientele to invest in rapid expansions, one can only wait and see if portrait commissioning is making a serious comeback. A couple of international outfits that preceded them have failed. The Indian franchise of the California-based chain Celebrity Kids set up three studios in New Delhi between December 2006 and March. All three shut down earlier this year. When we call the number listed in old directories, Dhawan answers. He is still using the number of his erstwhile employer and now runs his own freelance service across Delhi, Indore, Jalandhar and Chandigarh with photo packages that cost between 4,500 and 20,500. Another studio in Delhi, Star Shots—a swanky full-spectrum photo studio—shut shop after a three-year run in early 2009.

Portrait studios are not unheard of in Mumbai, but studio portraiture, particularly for family affairs, is yet to reinvent itself significantly. Dedicated portrait photographers are rarer yet, which is dangerous considering Mumbai has been the seat of studio photography in India. “Most photographers will work privately if someone wants them to take family shots, but they won’t identify themselves as portrait specialists," says Mumbai-based photographer Shahrukh Master. It suggests that shuttling comfortably between cutting-edge fashion shoots and lavish portrait photography isn’t yet as easy in India as it is for the renowned American photographer Annie Leibovitz. Even established photographers, such as Gautam Rajadhyaksha, Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh and Ketaki Sheth, who’ve devoted a significant chunk of their career to portraiture, don’t contribute to the existing framework of family portraiture. Sheth shot siblings— twins specifically—for four years, but says that her work is in no way related to, or a reflection of, developments in commercial studio portraiture.

Till innovators step into the genre, despite the renewed market interest and zealous entrepreneurs, the fate of the family portrait will, it seems, stay frozen in time.

Supriya Nair contributed to this story.