27 February 2014

Book Review: All in the Family

My review of Nony Singh's The Archivist for BiblioSee the pdf version, with images, here
The book jacket. (Click on the image to see it larger.)
Nony Singh is not a professional photographer. Born in 1936 in Lahore, she happens to be the mother of one of India's most feted professional photographers, Dayanita Singh. The photographs that have been collected in The Archivist were taken for personal pleasure, either by Nony Singh, or of Singh – or members of her family -- by others. The Archivist is thus an archive of Nony Singh's life. At one level, then, the book's pleasures lie in its closeness to the form in which most middle class people in the twentieth century grew up looking at photographs – the family album. But this is no standard family album. It does contain the expected portraits of sisters, parents, children and husbands – but it is the departures from expectation that give The Archivist its piquant quality.

Singh's wedding, for instance, makes the requisite appearance, but not in the form of the usual shaadi photo, the husband and wife with faces framed in tight close-up. Instead we get a full-length image of the newly wedded couple, taken from an angle, with a scattering of wedding guests seated on the carpeted ground around them. But Singh's face as she stands beside her husband is hidden completely, her head bent under the heavy gota-edged veil of her lehnga. The only part of the young bride not swaddled in yards of heavy fabric are her hands, held up to her chest in a clasping gesture that echoes that of her husband beside her.

The bashful bride of that 1960 picture would perhaps seem less carefully constructed if the book had not placed her next to a photograph from 1961, the year after Singh's marriage. In the second image, Singh looks out at us without the slightest trace of shyness, one insouciant finger in her mouth, having just tasted whatever's just been cooking on the chulha in front of her. There is a relaxed, almost tomboyish air about her, perched sideways on a chair in an open verandah, wearing a loose white kurta-pyjama that one speculates might belong to her husband. Her hair is in a long loose single plait, somewhat rumpled, like her clothes. One dangling foot has escaped the slipper meant for it. A bicycle is parked behind her, and something about the picture's sense of in medias res makes one imagine she might get up any moment and ride off.

Nony Singh's very particular persona – whimsical, playful, sensual – is imprinted upon most images in The Archivist. The book is full of moments of impersonation, of dress-up. The first person to have been subjected to Singh's staging instinct was likely her mother, Mohinder Kaur. The first photo she ever took was of her mother at a 1943 picnic on the way to Koh Murree: a picture of feminine grace, her eyes lowered, her crinkled dupatta draped over her head just so. The other image Nony created of her mother is a stark contrast. In perhaps the most astounding image in the book, Mohinder Kaur is dressed in drag. And not just any drag – with a false moustache and a policeman's baton, she is to play her IPS officer husband.

The easiest person to dress up was, of course, herself. In a series of images from 1951 to 1955, the teenaged Nony poses in different costumes: a khaki uniform with a toothbrush moustache, a full-length white dress befitting of a nun, in a burqa. A decade later, the desire for playacting is transferred to her daughters. Nixi (Dayanita) and Nikita appear in frilly frocks, but also as a Maharashtrian woman, as Sita, Mother Mary, an angel, a gypsy. Sometimes the same costumes and props appear over the course of the years: the jewellery worn by Nixi “as a Kashmiri girl in the wheat fields of her father's farm” (1966) reappears on her sister Nikita a decade later, “as a princess from the Arabian Nights, Modern School, New Delhi.” Sabeena Gadihoke's short biographical piece in the book tells us that the photographer, looking back at the Arabian Nights image, “is satisfied with the 'Arabian' face veil but feels that Nikita's ornaments are distinctly Kashmiri”. Her investment in her daughters is expressed in the imaginative stitching of clothes and in the careful staging with which these images are produced. The photographs are a record of their childhood, but also of Nony's motherhood.

Another persistent inspiration for Singh's images is the cinema. Her sister Rajman poses for her “like a village woman”, her sister Guddie appears as “Sophia Loren in Srinagar”. In one of my favourite pictures, Guddie looks out into the distance: her hands folded in her lap, dupatta slipping off one shoulder. There is a stillness to her and yet a certain yearning restlessness to the image, whose origin becomes clearer when you read Singh's caption: “After secretly watching Gone with the Wind, I asked Guddie to pose as Scarlett O'Hara”. What is remarkable is that unlike so many of the other pictures here, 'posing as Scarlett O'Hara' does not involve dressing up. No pert little bonnet or tight-waisted ball-gown or Mammy-like figure is needed to be Scarlett. It is the feeling that is sought to be emulated – though Guddie's dreamy-eyed gaze into a possible future seems quite different from the childish determination with which Scarlett sets out to shape hers.

That hankering for the cinematic image is something that Gadihoke's essay speaks to when she talks of film magazines as the place where film-goers “learnt to recognize star poses and gestures”. “With three single aunts and four sisters, it was a family dominated by women and they all loved the cinema,” writes Gadihoke. But “Nony's father was strict, and access to magazines and films was restricted.” Similar stories abound in many upper and middle class Indian families: I grew up hearing of how my grandmother and her sisters sneaked out to watch films without telling their disapproving father (and later, my equally disapproving grandfather). Clearly, it was hard for even the sternest disciplinarian to completely keep films out of the home.

The cinema is, in fact, one of the ways in which the rather privileged world of Nony Singh's book – picnics in Koh Murree, holidays in Srinagar, cousins who go to Doon School -- overlaps with the very different India that emerges from another recent book-archive of portrait photographs: Artisan Camera, Chris Pinney's tribute to Suresh Punjabi's 1970s studio photography from the small town of Nagda in Madhya Pradesh. Of course, the largely lower middle class men who come to be photographed in Studio Suhag model themselves on Hindi film heroes – the alcohol-soaked lover, the bidi-smoking gangster, the white-suited, sunglasses-wearing businessman all appear. Nony's cinematic referents, though she tells us she loved Nargis, Meena Kumri, Nimmi, Madhubala and Dilip Kumar, are as often as not from Hollywood – Sophia Loren, Gone With the Wind.

At a more fundamental level, Punjabi's images are of people for whom the constricted, constructed space of the studio was the only photographic space available, while Nony Singh's subjects seem to roam freely through the world, with her camera being allowed into almost intimate moments. Striking among such images are the Kasauli photograph of her sister Rajman, “newly married and in a romantic pose” (balanced rather beautifully on her husband's lap), the image of a male cousin, bare-bodied on a rock in the Lacchiwala river, Dehradun, and the 1979 one of Dayanita looking stunning in “the halter her father had forbidden her to wear, except for the photograph”.

But as always, that assumption of freedom, and of the camera as mere documenter, is too simple. The photograph of Dayanita in the halter is one stark instance of the camera being allowed to see what the rest of the world was not. In two images from 1960 we see Nony herself dressed in a way that perhaps only the camera could be privy to – first in an off-shoulder top and shorts, and then midstream in the same Lacchiwala river, only her bare shoulders visible above the water's surface. In another, from 1955, we see three young women sitting on the branch of a tree, with Nony's caption: “Climbing trees, though great fun, was not meant for girls those days. I asked them to sit on the tree to make an unusual picture.” All these images are real – but their reality is the creation of the camera.

During the making of the book Artisan Camera, Chris Pinney writes, he discovered that most of the original negatives of Suresh Punjabi's full-length photographs contained all the 'noise' of the studio, the part that had been cropped in order to produce the centrally framed human body that was all that was considered to be of interest to the customer, or to Suresh. When Pinney made fresh prints from the negatives, he was thrilled to be able to restore the “silent Brechtian margin” that had been sitting there, “awaiting recovery”. Fascinatingly, Dayanita Singh, describing her adult 'discovery' of her mother's images on the book jacket of The Archivist, describes a very similar process. “Many years later, I had contact sheets made of all her work. I saw how much the lab had cropped off each image. Printed in full frame, they turned out to be stunning images. They were more about the backdrop and the setting, rather than about her children.” Having read these words, one starts to wonder what the angel and gypsy would look like without the other child in fairy wings being led away by the hand in the background, or whether Nixi as Sita would work without the creeper-covered trellis and straw-covered shed behind her. I'm not certain I agree with Dayanita Singh's last claim. To me, Nony Singh's images seem very much about the people in them. But of course, most all, they are about herself.

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