By Chitra Ahanthem
The heading of this piece borrows from “Portraits in Sepia” a book by Isabel Allende, which uses the metaphor of photography as memory. The title of the book has been something that has always stayed on in my consciousness partly because the book was very captivating in its scope and narrative. Another reason that the book title has been used today (with a slight change though) is the fact that I love browsing through old photographs and imagining the stories behind the picture.
Growing up, it was very common to see large framed images of Gods and Goddesses in the house. It would take me years to realize that these were often calendar prints, which were framed. But till this realization came about, I often wondered as a child why images of the same God with the same name would look all different: was it because these God pictures were in different houses I often thought. A distinct memory is of a black and white photo print of a young Indira Gandhi giving a glass of juice to Mahatma Gandhi who was reclined on a bed as Jawaharlal Nehru looked on. Another accompanying picture to this one in most houses then was that of a laughing Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Either or both of these two pictures graced most households during the early 80’s. Was it the sway of the Congress (I) party then? I have no precise answer to that.
The oldest photograph is our family is sepia tainted or rather, a fading black and white photograph of my great grand father. The photo shows him in a impeccable two piece suit and a long turban on his head. His right hand touches a wooden chair and his legs are firmly but subtly parted and he throws a confident look at the camera though his left eye looks slightly hidden by a portion of his turban. There is something regal and disciplined about his stance and even as a child I realized that this man would not have been just a family patriarch. And though he wasn’t around when I was born, this picture that remains of him tells me so much in his stance. In later years, I found that he was a Royal official in the court of Maharaj Churachand.
On my mother’s side, there are a few pictures of my maternal grand father: a giant of a man (who unfortunately did not pass on his height related genes to me) dressed in a huge overcoat and with a riffle in hand. He passed away when I was about 7 year old and if it were not for the few photographs, which are with me now; he would have only remained a grandfatherly memory. But the photographs prompted me to ask my mother about what her father was all about. What my mother told me was totally fascinating: my maternal grand father had been a ‘been there, done that’ person who started by running errands and then becoming a driver at a young age (when the British were still around) who later went on to have his own goods carriers (my mother gave me a very confusing vehicle name called “Bedfour” or some such). The irony was that there were no remains of the women in both sides of the family. On my father’s side, there is no photograph of my great-grand mother though there is one of my grand mother surrounded by 6 of her 9 children looking beautiful but a bit harried (9 children can do that very effectively I guess) but this picture was taken much later. Once I asked my maternal grand mother why there wasn’t any photograph taken of her early years and she told me matter of fact, “they said that when the light went off and the sparks flew, it would shorten your life!” (she was clearly talking of the earlier box cameras)
The later pictures belonging to my parents’ time (late 60’s and 70’s) speak of a better comfort level that one doesn’t see in the pictures of the generation before them. It was common then to take posed pictures in a studio with huge cut outs of the Taj Mahal or some such monument as backdrop. The men often sported fashionable mustaches and really huge spectacles while the women had really elaborate hairstyles and sported flowers. There was a visible effort to dress up and pose in their early years that slowly gave away to more normal captures like a picnic scene or a wedding or some family event. Slowly of course, the black and white photographs gave way to colour and taking photographs became easier and more common.
Now, photographs have become the order of the day and within the reach of even young children, thanks to mobile handsets that come in with camera on one hand and digital cameras getting cheaper by the day. At one stage, a camera reel was all planned out and executed while the photograph subjects would have to wait for the results to be developed. Today, there is no such thing as a bad moment on camera (closed eyes, a not so good profile shot etc) as any, or all unwanted pictures can be deleted. A look at the picture(s) on display and pressing delete is all it takes with no extra cost. Some people even go to the extent of saying that social networking sites have led to excessive photography with everyone making a rush to upload photos of their self, their family, their pets and what not!