It was close to noon sometime last week. I was at work and wrestling with some pending bills, my least favourite task in the world.
“The morning mail’s here and there’s a packet for you,” announced G, my office assistant as she came into my room and handed a medium-sized envelope to me.
“Personal or official?” I asked, glad for the distraction.
“I think it is personal,” said G as she turned to leave.
“It is. And I know what’s inside too,” I said when I saw the return address on the envelope. “Go, get the others. I think all of you will like to see this.”
Within minutes my office team had gathered gathered around my table and the envelope had been cut open and its contents spread on the table — lots and lots of photographs of my family, many of which I was seeing for the first time.
“So many photographs!” exclaimed a team member. “Someone in your family must have been very fond of photography.”
As we went through the photographs, I told them of the two photographers in the family who had taken the bulk of the photos. I also shared the memories and stories behind the ones I could recognise, and how the photographs in the envelope came to be sent to me.
Appa (my father) was a keen photographer and his three children (my two older brothers and I) were his favourite subjects. He had two cameras — an Agfa (see photo on the left) and then a Yashica — and the best and the bulk of our childhood photographs were taken by him. Appa would select the best of the photographs and send copies of them to our grandparents and other relatives. Shortly after I was born, the Agfa stopped functioning and a few years later, the Yashica got stolen. Disheartened by this, Appa never bought another camera and gave up photography.
The other photographer in the family was my Athimber (uncle or the term used to refer to one’s father’s sister’s husband in Tamil). See the photo on the right — that’s me with him in Jodhpur in 1982. He was also a keen photographer and took a lot photographs of our family. Not only that, Athimber also collected photographs from all over. This included the photographs that Appa had sent. When Athimber passed away last year, he left a huge collection of photographs behind. It took his son, Suresh (my cousin) and Bala, his daughter-in-law, over a year to sort through the photographs and then mail them to the people they belonged to.
The photographs in the envelope included my parents’ wedding photographs; some of my father (who I always remember as having a bald pâté) with ample hair on his head; childhood photographs of my brothers and me, including one of my paternal grandfather with me on my 1st birthday; and a few photographs from my college days. Most of the photographs were in black and white; few were in colour. All the photos, without exception, were taken with a film camera. Sharing some of them here along with the associated memories, stories and observations.
1. My parents, shortly after their wedding in Madras (now Chennai), June 1956. I love this picture with my mother looking so young and beautiful, and my father with hair on his head 😛 . I still can’t get over how mismatched my mother’s blouse and saree are. I guess it was fairly typical and common to pair a saree with any available blouse then. Even today, my mother doesn’t bother and if it were not for me would wear any blouse with any saree !
2. Sridhar, my eldest brother, in Kanpur (1959) and photographed by Appa. Sridhar has a rather serious personality and photographs of him, even as a child, reflect that. This one of him smiling is a rather rare one and I like it for that reason.
3. Sriraman, the second of my older brothers, in Kolkata (1965) and photographed by Appa. Sriraman has a cheerful countenance and it is rather rare to find a photograph of him in which he is not smiling or exuding energy. I love this photograph of him looking thoughtfully at something or someone.
4. Yours truly in Mumbai (September 1975), begging my mother for a garland to wear around my neck. This was photographed by Appa at my youngest maternal aunt’s wedding. I wanted to be dressed like the bride complete with garland and bridal finery. My mother is out of the frame in the photo and scolding me, while I continue with the whining. This bratty behaviour was unusual, for I was a quiet, well-behaved child. That alone makes this photograph quite memorable.
5. That’s me again wearing my first salwar kameez and the biggest smile possible in Ahmedabad (1980), and photographed by Athimber. Many girls dream of wearing their first sarees; I dreamt of wearing my first salwar kameez. I think I asked for my first one when I was about 6 and the answer was a flat and emphatic “no” from my mother. An elderly neighbour, who knew about my desire to wear a salwar kameez, gifted this material to me and told my mother to get one stitched. My mother wasn’t very happy about the request, but couldn’t say no. That’s how I got my first salwar kameez. I loved wearing it that day and on other days as well. Even today, the salwar kameez remains my favourite outfit. 🙂
6. My maternal aunt, Baby, and Sridhar in Mumbai (1963) and photographed by Appa. This was the most precious of all the photographs in the envelope for Baby Chitti (aunt in Tamil) died before I was born. I had not even seen a photograph of her for there were none. The only photograph with the family was a grainy faded one with her features indistinguishable in it. Baby Chitti passed away in March 1965 and 2015 was the 50th year of her death.
When I saw this photograph, I didn’t have to wonder who she was; my mother’s description of her was enough for me to recognise her. It was an emotional moment for my mother that evening when I gave her this photograph.
Its been about 10 days since I received these photographs, and have already gone through them a number of times. Each time, I see them I realise how precious they are and how lucky we are to have them.
We lost most of the photographs we had (and many other belongings) when we made the shift from Bhopal to Mumbai. The few that survived only accentuated the absence of the ones we had lost. Over the years, we tried to rebuild the collection by getting copies from relatives and grandparents, but that didn’t always work. These photographs have now been added to our family album.
I also realise how lucky our family was to have our life documented and captured in photographs in the first place. This realisation came when a colleague mentioned, with a wistful look on his face after seeing the photographs, that he didn’t have a single photograph from his childhood for none were taken. His first photograph was when he was 15 and taken for an identity card !
In today’s context, when every moment is a selfie moment, it is difficult to imagine a time when photographs were not considered necessary or important enough. As someone who relies on photographs to support or complement what I write or even let the photographs do the talking, this is something that has made me stop and think.
Do you have family photographs? Tell me about your favourite ones in the comments section.
PS: In case you were wondering about the header photograph, that’s me as a 7-year-old in 1978. I had just recovered from a bad burn on my back and was visiting the temple for thanksgiving. My maternal grandmother had dressed me up and then had this photograph professionally taken in a photo studio at Matunga in Mumbai. 🙂