By Mridu Rai
This is a photograph of my great grandmother on my father’s side. Her name is Kharu Maya Rai. She is referred to as Budi Mimi (old grandmother) in our family. I know very little about the life of the woman to whom I trace my lineage. The relatives who knew her say she was a strong, hard working woman. My father has narrated a few stories about her, mostly fading, fragmented memories. Once When we were en-route from Melli to Namchi viaRateypani, he showed me a small open space where he said an annual fair used to take place and my great grandmother used to brew homemade liquor to sell at the fair. Every time I drive by this road, I try and seek this open space and picture my Budi Mimi there. Why do I feel this intense need to connect with her? Why now?
This second picture is of my grandmother’s mother. She is stood on the far left. No one in my family knows her name. There are no memories, no stories of her except my father’s vague remembrance that she came to Sikkim from beyond Mechi khola (the trans-boundary river flowing through Nepal and India). My father found this photograph of hers in my grandmother’s knick-knacks and kept it with him. The woman in the middle is my father’s aunt, but he doesn’t recognise the one on the far-right. If you notice carefully, the left half of the photograph has been cut off— for reasons we will never know. Was there someone unwanted in the picture? Or was it to remove an empty background from the frame? Where is the other half now? What will it mean to make the picture whole again? While we cannot ascertain where this photograph of my father’s maternal grandmother was taken, all the photographs of Budi Mimi have been taken at Kalikhola, our ancestral village in South Sikkim. According to my father, these were mostly photographed during various festivals when the whole family got together. These pictures are all somewhat blurry—time and its traces have made the visibility worse.
Photographs are fascinating objects. They’re also difficult objects. Often, the more time you spend with an image, the more it mires you down in a web of complexities. I have been sharing a somewhat similar relationship with these photographs of my great grandmothers. For one, the more I look at these photographs, the more I want to know. In most pictures Budi Mimi is with family members, but there’s one portrait of hers. She’s wearing a plaid blouse, floral sari, a necklace and a shawl. Her eyes are shut. It is her pose, however, that continues to draw me in, especially the hands, call it my punctum if you like. She looks poised and dignified, yet there are signs that this pose has been manufactured for the camera. Perhaps, the photographer asked her to be so and she agreed to the “performance”. What was she thinking in those very moments the photographs were taken? What did she do before and after these moments? What did photographs mean to her?
In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes pays a deeply personal ode to his mother, contemplating on a snapshot of hers, the Winter Garden—a picture we never get to see but only read about. As much as Barthes tries to understand the photograph by lingering on it, by looking at it and scrutinising it, the photograph continues to elude him. “Alas, however hard I look, I discover nothing; if I enlarge, I see nothing but the grain of the paper… In front of the Winter Garden Photograph I am a bad dreamer who vainly holds out his arms towards the possession of the image…”. Such is my predicament with the photographs of my great grandmothers. Most times, they tell me nothing more than what is presented to the eyes. At others, however, I do feel I’ve unearthed a fresh narrative. In fact, I wonder what is it that I’m really looking for in these photographs? Something that, perhaps, will help cement my now transient relationship with these women.
As much as I love holding these photographs and reflecting upon them on my own, the stories that my father tells me about my great grandmothers intensifies my connection with them. These stories that I have heard, not only of my great grandmothers but of my father’s family’s past, help me imagine a certain kind of lives for these women. While the oral retelling in no way completes my attempt at building a firm relationship with my great grandmothers, leaving several questions still unanswered, what these stories do, nevertheless, are help me feel like I’m getting closer to bridging this gap. Through the stories I have been told of my great grandmothers, I have been encouraged to explore my own family history and knowledge of traditions, that were so intimate to our identities but have almost diminished within just two generations. For instance, through conversations initiated by these photographs, I have come to know that my great granduncle was a powerful shaman, who is said to have been able to manipulate the elements if he chose to. It seems that once he destroyed his brother’s field of crops with heavy rains when the siblings had a major conflict. These stories seem incredible now, but the fact that shamanism was an intricate part of our family tradition is incontestable.
I genuinely believe that photographs are not only contemplative, they have other sensory agencies too, they can act as “interlocutors’’ as Elizabeth Edwards would say, allowing the unlocking of memories and enabling knowledge to be created, validated and transmitted over generations. This is what the photographs of my grandmothers have done too.
For my father as well, this exercise seems to reawaken dormant memories as he animatedly performs the act of remembering. The visual and the oral, therefore, are not opposing mediums, especially when it comes to these old family photographs. These photographs have become active sites of remembrance and reconstruction as I explore further. This leads me to reflect on a more general contemplation on the nature of photographs themselves— how important is context to the understanding and appreciation of a photograph? Without textual or oral contextualisation is it difficult, if not outright impossible, to interpret images? If I had not laid down the brief narrative about my great grandmothers and their photographs at the beginning, would the entire essence of this essay been erased?
This then brings me to my own apprehensions about my great grandmothers’ photographs. Besides the broken memories shared by my father, I’ve already lost half the context of these photographs. But what seems to be intact are the emotions attached to them. In fact, the more I spend time with the pictures, more these emotions intensify. As long as these photographs are with me—in my safe personal space—they retain the intimate sentiment that I find hard to articulate and at times reluctant to share. However, what happens once these photographs are out in the public domain, when they are digitised for an archive—where contexts and emotions are altered? These photographs will probably be studied for their social indexes—the clothes the “subjects” are wearing, the landscape and architecture in the background. They will, of course, still be important to researchers and practitioners, but will they ever share the same sentiments that I do with the photographs?
Within the digital space itself, these photographs will lose their materiality. The creases, the fingerprint smudges and the blemishes will be effaced. Most importantly, the tactility, the feelings that emerge when physically holding the photographs will be lost forever. My great grandmothers’ photographs will go on to have many different meanings to many different people. Yet, will they ever replicate the singular significance these photographs hold for me?
Maybe I have to make peace with the fact that the photographs of my great grandmothers don’t belong to me alone. They will generate as many narratives as the number of people who encounter them. Am I apprehensive about this? Yes I am, but I also realise that whilst these pictures are not mine to keep, the bond I have built with them is inimitable. And this too is exactly why I respect each and every photograph that comes to our archive at the Confluence Collective and the relationship the contributors have with these photographs. I understand fully that our contributors are not only donating a picture but so much more. Photographs, after all, are embodied objects.
• Barthes, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. London: Vintage Books.
• Edwards, Elizabeth. 2005. “Photographs and the Sound of History.” Visual Anthropology Review 21 (1-2): 27–46.
I started writing this introspective and personal piece without a roadmap, allowing my thoughts to lead me. This might explain the patchiness and abrupt leaps at certain points to the reader. I would like to thank Ruchika Gurung and Dipti Tamang for their inputs in shaping the final draft, which still is imperfect but the story asked to come out after months of being shelved.