The stories that photographs tell

At our ancestral home in my village, among the many photographs of relatives distant and near, politicians, gods and goddesses, there hangs a black-and-white photograph. It is the photo of my father’s grandfather, my paternal grandparents, the eldest daughter of my grandparents, and my grandfather’s nephew. And, of course there are stories about the absence of my father’s grandmother as well as for the presence of grandfather’s nephew in the photograph. In fact, most of the family stories I learnt in relation to photographs of this sort, and, at times, after hearing some family story, I tried to understand the described events with respect to the photographs.

And, some of the stories that were related to me about the photographs are fairly detailed — who took the photograph for example, and when — before so-and-so was born but after so-and-so’s seemantham and so on — and, I was told on good authority that the one in which my grandfather looks a bit tired is because it was taken on an Ekadashi day (when he was fasting).

I remembered all those photographs when I saw this nice piece by Malavika Karlekar in the Telegraph:

By the 1870s, the camera entered the lives of the Indian landed elite and the growing middle class; it was invaluable in the depiction of family life and newly-acquired professional roles where it became de rigueur for men with or without their families to be framed for posterity. Elaborate formal attire, the pose and the positioning of persons, were of vital importance; in the case of a married couple, how each spouse was seated or standing individually and in relation to one another often indicated relative status within the marital bond. Individuals or families in groups stood or sat elaborately dressed, framed against the backdrop of phantasmic studio sets — distant lakes, castles, tropical forests — that looked beyond everyday realities. This juxtaposition of the mundane with the imagined can be viewed as an image of the colonial encounter, where both ruler and ruled were involved in the intricate practice of redefining themselves; make-believe too had a role in this complex process.

The piece by Karlekar is not only the social history of family portraits in colonial India, but also a tribute to a Gandhian:

Some families, more than others, have been conscientious in the preservation of family photographs, diaries, memoirs and other random writings, a case in point being that of the Sulemaini Bohra Tyabjis of Gujarat. Family archivist Salima Tyabji has painstakingly organized, arranged and curated the many photographs of this amazing family (most of which are in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library); it is almost possible to reconstruct a family history and indicate social change on the basis of these visuals alone. For instance, several document Abbas Tyabji’s metamorphosis from a Western-educated fun-loving professional to a devout Gandhian, the camera zeroing in infallibly on changed dress codes, demeanour and pose. The recently published biography by the historian, Aparna Basu, brought out by the National Book Trust, tells us about this metamorphosis of the by-then-elderly Abbas. This informative little text recounts how he came to be referred to as the ‘chhota Gandhi’ — an ironic epithet, as Tyabji was 17 years older than the Mahatma.

Basu has relied on his diaries and public papers held by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library as well as published and unpublished biographies, and “an unending stream of letters” between him and M.K. Gandhi. The present photograph that Basu uses in her book clearly belongs to Abbas’s pre-Gandhian phase (picture). In this family photograph taken at Abbas Tyabji’s Bombay home, the photographic establishment has almost re-created a theatrical set, the central characters being Abbas (seated in the middle without head gear), and wife Ameena who is next to him. As the photograph was being taken at home, the photographer was able to devote more time to its composition, very likely with inputs from the family.

What is particularly interesting is that nobody engages with the camera: not one of the 17 people looks straight at it — and yet there is a certain dynamism in the visual. The photograph forces the viewer to give it more than a passing glance. Abbas’s head is almost at right angles while Ameena looks askance, with somewhat downcast eyes. A close examination of each person’s pose indicates that there is nothing accidental about any of them. Generations and genders are mixed, clothes, postures, demeanours composed — if not dictated — and arranged to give it a certain dramatic quality. There is movement in stasis and several sub-groups within the larger assemblage in this conversation piece, that is like many group portraits by the 18th-century British painter, William Hogarth, with all the “atmospherics of a domestic drama”. Clearly considerable thought — if not debate — ensued before the shot was taken. And as it is likely to have been taken in the 1880s, if not the 1870s, the entire event would have taken quite some time, perhaps even half a day.

Here is the wiki page of Abbas Tyabji (with a nice photograph of Tyabji with Gandhiji). Though Karlekar does not mention it, Salim Ali, the foremost of Indian ornithologists is the nephew of Tyabji.

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4 Responses to “The stories that photographs tell”

  1. Dorothy Stahlnecker Says:

    This is such a terrific post for family history. Within the last two years I lost my mom and natural father. I had a question regrading our family and realized there was no one left I could ask.

    I have boxes of pictures in my basement and you have brought a new light to their importance. I thank you…as when no one is left and there are no diaries or journals the picture can mean a million words.

    My best,
    Dorothy from grammology
    remember to call your gram

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Dorothy,

    Good to see you here; hope you are doing fine.

    It might be a good idea, if you can find the time and inclination, to scan the pictures and keep digital copies. In fact, that is one of the projects I have in mind: to scan all the photos that we have with us, and store them with the comments from my parents, aunts, and uncles, so that it can be sort of a family history archive for my daughter as well as my nieces and nephews.


  3. Dorothy Stahlnecker Says:

    Guru, that is a great idea, and we have a scanner in our office. At least I’ll scan and date (as close as I can) the important photos.

    Such a great post teaching us to preserve our history in photographs. One more treatment June 30th and I pray remission. Thanks for asking, I’m doing pretty good.

    Dorothy from grammology
    remember to call gram

  4. Guru Says:

    Dear Dorothy,

    All the best for the June 30th treatment. I will keep following your blog for updates. And, am looking forward to some of the scanned photos on your blog — by the way, Maud Newton, in her blog, put some wonderful photographs of her parents (and, probably grandparents too), that might be of interest to you.


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