Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
Photograph by Susanta Banerjee
  The photograph  
S. Diwakar

  Looking for me
  Vol IV : issue 5 & 6

  Cover page
  Ashis Nandy
  Kunwar Narain
  S. Diwakar
  Tadeus Pfeifer
  Satish Alekar
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Please look at this photograph. The couple sitting here are newlyweds. From the ornaments they are wearing, I suspect that at least one of them is quite rich. First, focus your attention on the young bride. It is well known that at the beginning of the 20th century, girls used to be married off quite early. My guess is that the girl in the photograph is probably fourteen or fifteen years old. The outline of the young breasts behind the pallu of her sari appears to confirm my guess. Round face. Slightly swollen eyes beneath thick brows. The bulaku that hangs from the tip of her nose almost touches her lower lip, so it is difficult to make out whether those lips are smiling or grave. The shadowy chin makes her cheeks look full. Elaborate ornaments conceal the parting of her hair and her forehead; jewels seem to have replaced her ears.

Speaking of ornaments, guess how many necklaces sheís wearing? I have tried to count them a number of times and this is what I figure: the necklace hugging her throat must be at least three fingers wide, then there are the four looping across her shoulders and seven more hang loose, down to her waist. I guess I donít have to elaborate on the precious stones set in these gold necklaces: pearls, corals ó and very expensive ones at that. Then there are armlets, waist chains, the thick kadaga and bangles on her slender wrists. The rings on her fingers are linked to the bangles with chains. Look at her feet with the fat gejjes (thick bells) on the anklets, and the toe-rings. Four rings on four toes! They look massive! With her arms resting on her thighs and her legs clasped tight, it looks like someone has forced her to sit next to the man, her husband. Well, enough of this photograph.

The man and woman are my grandparents, and this photograph hangs in my ancestral house in Bhuvanagiri. The photographer was Velappan, a Tamil who had come from Bangalore to Bhuvanagiri around 1923. My grandfather was Lakshminaranayya. My grandmother, Kamalamma, was the daughter of Jodidar Shamanna of Gangavara. Shamanna came from an affluent family that owned lands and property. He probably had good reasons for marrying his only daughter to this poor Lakshminaranayya of Bhuvanagiri. Well, letís not bother with that story now.

What if Kamalamma was born of a rich family? Once she was married, her husband was her god. Lakshminaranayya was both arrogant and short-tempered. Do you see the window in the background, just behind the seated couple? Maybe those iron bars have a story to tell about Kamalammaís marriage.

Going by my motherís version of the story, when she was about seven or eight her father, Lakshminaranayya, had a mistress in Sulibelepet. After a couple of months, the news reached his home. Even the maids were gossiping about it. Kamalamma was hurt. Incapable of making a scene, she fasted and gave up sleeping altogether. One day Lakshminaranayya was in the backyard gathering flowers for his morning pooja. Kamalamma picked up an axe and began chopping wood and stacking it in a corner. She, who had not touched an axe in her life, let alone chopped wood, tied her seragu to her waist, hitched up her sari and went heroically at it. The woodpile rose almost as tall as a full-grown man! Imagine the shy, crouching girl huddled next to her husband in the photograph silently chopping wood with powerful strokes. Lakshminaranayya stood spellbound, his heart in his mouth. That was it. She resumed her normal life, smiles and all. Lakshminaranayya never, ever went back to Sulibelepet and Kamalamma never picked up an axe again.

After I had heard this story from my mother, I looked at the photograph again. My grandmotherís eyes seemed to be saying something else now. What was it, I wondered: "Look at the ornaments on my body?" "Look how cunning this guy next to me is?" "Iím not as naïve as you seem to think?"

Reading a photograph is an art, like reading a poem or a story. I have tried to read this photograph rather closely. I expect you would want to study it too. If your reading differs from mine and the image reveals something else to you, please donít forget to tell me about it.


Translated from the Kannada by Vidya Murthy,
K.S. Srinivasa Murthy and TLM

S. Diwakar is an award-winning Kannada poet and fiction writer. He lives in Madras