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 How Do I Bring You Home?

Mridu Rai


Three years ago, I stumbled upon a fragmented photograph of three women, sepia-toned and marred by some surface grime. While the right and top edges have a clear white border, the left and bottom edges look like they have been neatly trimmed with a pair of scissors. The absence of the other half of the photograph always fuels my curiosity—What did this now absent space hold? I can only speculate. Did the trimmer want the entire focus to be on the women? Perhaps there were people in it with whom they had uncongenial relations and wanted to sever them. Was it a creative experiment or an inadvertent mistake? 


It makes it even harder to reconstruct the complete picture because of the elusive identities of the women. The one on the left is my father’s maternal grandmother— “Left Maternal grandma”—he has scribbled on the back of the photograph. However, her name remains unknown. He says the one in the middle could be his aunt and he does not recognize the one on the right. So many questions persist. What are their names? When and where was this photograph taken? What mysteries does the absent half conceal? Neither my father nor anyone else in the family know. He found it among my grandmother’s belongings years ago and had kept it with him since. The photograph’s ambiguous origin and the missing details leave a gap in our family history, one which we would not even be aware of if this photograph was not found. 


Around the same time, I chanced upon another photograph of my paternal great-grandmother whom we call Budi Mimi (old grandmother). It was stacked along with a collection of other black and white photographs, mostly of my father’s side of the family. While visibly more obscure than the one I discussed above, it holds more documentative certainty. She is Khadu Maya Chamling, and as my father has written on the back of the picture, “Mother of Sri K.B Rai, Kalikhola. She is 82 years old in the year 1973. Grandma”. There is also a signature with the date 17.04.1973. 


These photographs are now in my custody. I, somehow, feel responsible for them. A responsibility that entails both the preservation of the photographs and the need to bring my great-grandmothers to life through them. In fact, as I grow older, I long to consolidate the ephemeral relationship I have with my ancestors through these visual remnants. 




In 2021, I returned to a photograph of ‘Bridhan Roy Turuk’ in Christopher Pinney’s book Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs (1997). The photograph is from the L.A Waddell Collection (1890 c.). Bridhan’s face appeared familiar, so did his name. Bridhan’s profile and full-face portraits are numbered 251 and 252 on Waddell’s list and the latter’s preferred caption for him is— 


“Khambu or Jimdar of Eastern Nepal (not so typical as no. 249 and 250)


In the appendix at the end of the album, Waddell, however, provides handwritten notes with more details about the sitter, evidencing how he knew their identiites but chose not to reveal them unless as an afterthought—


“Bridhan Roy Turuk. Thur Dilpaly. Age 24 years. Tribe Khambu (Sikkim)”


Khambu is the indigenous community of the Eastern Himalayas that I belong to. Thur or thar is our clan name. Mine is Thulung; Bridhan, Waddell says, is Dilpaly (probably Dilpali). And Turuk is a village 20 kilometres from my ancestral place of Kalikhola in the state of Sikkim, India. A connection, distant in context and temporality, yet somehow close in emotions, had been established. I decided to seek the Waddell collection further. 


Laurence Austine Waddell (1854–1938), a Scottish colonial officer, wore many hats as an explorer, archaeologist, ethnologist, collector and surgeon. Around the late 1880s, he served in Darjeeling, assuming the role of Principal Medical Officer. His book Among the Himalayas (1900) chronicles his travel in the Sikkim-Darjeeling Hills. In the book, Waddell frequently presents a romanticized perspective of the landscape, seeing it both as an idyllic escape and a terra nullius awaiting the colonizer’s magnanimous modernity. Waddell also scarcely tries to hide the prevalent racial attitudes towards the people who are portrayed as both “primitive” and “picturesque”. 


Waddell’s photographic archive, in the form of an album, is now housed at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London. It has 60 photographs of 30 men and women representing “types of natives” of Nepal, Tibet and Sikkim. The commission was carried out by Johnston and Hoffman studio, Calcutta and the portraits can be classified as types, confirming to the ethnological concerns of the time. The process, frequently enforced, through coercive or even violent means, resulted in the erasure of individuals’ distinctive identities, cultural ties, and social contexts. Type photographs were also utilized as purported ‘scientific’ evidence to legitimize colonial ideologies such as evolutionary racial theories. This practice relied heavily, if not completely, on the belief in the camera’s objectivity and its capacity to present the “truth”. But they were equally consumed widely in popular culture in the form of postcards and carte de visite. While this practice has mostly been discredited in contemporary anthropology, the visual archives still remain.



The paradoxical colonial gaze towards the people of the Himalayas, at once idealistic and derogatory, is reflected in the photographs in the Waddell collection. The photographs are not what one could term as “difficult” with overt dehumanization and racialization as in some physical type photographs from the nineteenth century. On initial encounter, the aesthetic treatment even lends a sense of romantic nostalgia. This aesthetic allure has led to the idealization of many of these photographs, especially as I found on social media, some admiring the “beauty” of the people in the portraits and some longing for lost traditions. 


When I first experienced the archive, I felt an immediate affinity towards the people and an antipathy towards the makers of the photographs. My immediate reaction was to seek agency for the people in them and critique the colonial practices that made the photographs possible in the first place. But once the sentiments had somewhat settled, I began to find a strange solace in both the acts of seeing and unseeing. The seeing led me to form a connection with the individuals in the portraits, the unseeing led me to critique this very connection I was starting to forge. The title How Do I Bring You Home?, therefore, was also a question that I posed to myself. It mirrors my initial struggle to determine the right thing to do with these photographs, of failing to vindicate the people in them and of the inability to find a secure material and symbolic home for the people in the photographs, contemporaries of my ancestors. It also reflects the inner conflict I felt with the notion and process of decolonization itself. 




In time, How Do I Bring You Home? became a self-conscious attempt at, what Clare Harris calls “overturn[ing] the silencing effect of colonial archival processes”. I have tried to practice this un-silencing through an imagined visual and oral reconstruction. The visual is a bricolage of sorts—an unskilful juxtaposition of photographs from different archives, individual and institutional, and from my own family albums. The oral is in the form of letters—reflective of my internal oscillations making them rather incoherent and inadequate. 


I also see this process of un-silencing as embodying the mundhum, our Kirat Khambu cosmology. The mundhum not only encompasses the knowledge and practices of our ancestors but also serves as a guiding force directing us in the choices we make in our everyday lives. For us, our ancestors never leave our world and our beings. After they pass away, their spirits reside in the suptulung, the ancestral hearth made of three stones. We are always in communication with them through different mediums including rituals and dreams. Tethered to the western education system for so long, learning to practice our mundhum is something that I adopted late in life. This has now allowed me to understand my own place in the world better. It has also allowed me to build connections and have communications with the people in these photographs. The initial discomfort I felt with the project, has gradually started to make more sense. But there is a long way to go. Much unlearning to do. 


This series, therefore, is not an artwork. It is a search for different ways of experiencing colonial archives. It is a hope that the personhood of our ancestors remains inviolate in these images. Despite the colonial contexts in which these were made, at times a small part of me believes that, perhaps, the initial agency, I was so desperately seeking, already exists, both in the presence of the people in the photographs and in the presence of the photographs themselves. 

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