Telling Her Story: Filming Women in Photographs
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So recites Subhamita Chaudhuri, from a poem by her paternal great-grandmother Lobonyabala Chaudhuri (b.1885). This account of conservative values surrounding child brides in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contrasts with the story of Subhamita’s maternal grandmother Chobi Ghosh (b.1917) who was a keen sportswoman, played the violin and piano and had aspirations of entering the Civil Services after her marriage. In Nishtha Jain’s film “Family Album”, images of the lives of these women and others, found in photographic albums from Calcutta, are interpreted by their descendants. These photographic albums echo varied realities through the voices of their inheritors, women and men telling essentially women’s stories. Embedded within these are readings of male society in colonial Calcutta, as it occupied the external, public, non-domestic realms that women did not often enter.
Tales of freedom and secrecy in a city with changing values—and changing landscapes when viewed from the rooftops of Calcutta’s mansions—spill beyond the leaves of these picture books. The women in these photographs stand as examples of compromise between personal goals and social roles, testified to by the camera, which portrays them in varied personas. United through an intricate web of kinship, Subhamita and her parents Tapati and Amitava Chaudhuri, along with others in the film, reconstruct their ancestry pictorially. Anecdotes, nostalgia and questions abound, infusing the images with a life-like potency that influences their keepers. Fiction is interlaced with fact as a palimpsest history passes on from one generation to the next.
It takes another woman, wielding another lens, to initiate discussion and document these narratives. Chroniclers such as Nishtha Jain are few and far between, delving into the attics and bedrooms of old mansions in Calcutta to retrieve the stories of families through their pictures. Her quest is richly rewarded with narratives about picture making, about romances with the camera, about personas that surfaced only in front of it and lives that the camera alone remembers, as human memory fails and genealogies fade.
The following essay comments on Jain’s latest film titled Family Album (2011) and considers the gendered history of Calcutta’s elite revealed by her studies. The film follows an earlier one titled City of Photos (2005) which was Jain’s first attempt at the phenomenon of ‘inter- ocularity’, documenting the activity of the photographic studios which are part of everyday life in India. Her purpose in Family Album is to present, through discussion of images, the stories that become collective narratives of family, society and nation. As she observes on her film’s jacket cover, “the story escapes the confines of the photograph and of individual memory”, extending the socio-cultural significance of her findings.
She reviews the family photographs of five discussants, related and unrelated to each other, but members of a similar upper class milieu in the city of Calcutta. The elite positions of the families reveal alternately liberal or conservative attitudes towards women, based on how far Western culture had influenced the men of the household. Men such as Amitava Chaudhury hold high regard and respect for the women whose stories they tell, such as his own grandmother who, as a widow, sought to break socially repressive norms.
The family photograph itself appears as a particular type of image category, with affective qualities balancing its historical and factual qualities, perhaps calling forth a different method to study it. The fact that the family has always attracted the camera at the simplest and most complex levels lends it the status of being a fertile ground for images. Judith Mara Gutman recognizes this point in her work Through Indian Eyes (1982), one of the first treatises on Indian photography, when she writes, “families acted as catalyst in the growth of photography in India. Photography has been integrally tied to institutions attached to the family’s place in Indian life and thought. Royal families used photographers... Photographer families trained photographers. Bazaar life perpetuated joint families, and those families bought, sold and exchanged photographs” (1982:101). The relationship between the family and its foremost tool for self-visualization is thus well established, if not taken for granted.
A pressing question for a film such as Family Album concerns the director’s methodology regarding the family and photography as subjects. Jain clearly departs from the methodology of previous documentary undertakings on the general topic, say by David and Judith MacDougall, who in Photo Wallahs (1991) give no hint of directorial presence in the film, consciously avoiding the employment of techniques such as voice over, background score and text, least of all, graphics and text. While their position as keen observers and visual anthropologists with sound methods of investigation cannot be questioned, their noticeable effort is to avoid any visually obvious self-insertion discernable to the viewer. Jain’s method has evolved after successfully reconsidering the divide between subjective and objective texture in documentary films. She works with unflinching directorial intervention using sound scores, graphics and text to reveal more through affect, deliberately evoking emotion, rather than relying on the direct experience of visual footage.
Jain takes on the role of the storyteller of storytellers, on liminal ground between the subjective and objective, injecting emotion into the document through music by Boris Krzisnik and sound design by Niraj Gera, with sounds ranging from Rabindra Sangeet to plucky string and soulful saxophone, to Chobi Ghosh’s well rehearsed piano renditions. There is a seamless transition between music which is internal to the film, emanating from its actors, and that which is externally introduced with directorial purpose. Frequent textual insertions foreground the director’s encounters in first person, her journey of observation and interpretation entwined with the living reality of her subjects, all presented lucidly to the viewer. This intermixture of methods utilizes observation outside the circumference of anthropology to produce a rich, empathetic document of subjective truth. Jain’s truth emanates from her affiliation with the extended eye of the camera, which has penetrated these households for nearly two centuries. Her familiarity with the filmic camera extends to the photographic one, fusing the two through oral, textual and musical supplements. The outcome is a blended whole which is greater than the sum of its parts, the director steering the viewer to compare and contrast the visual histories of select families of Calcutta through a double lens.
Her film can be located amidst the growing scholarly interest in Indian visual culture, especially photography, and the recognition of its historical and socio-cultural value. In this scholarship, there has been a greater inclination to examine photography of the colonial period, which is also the primary focus of Jain’s film, with technology taking creative turns to serve the purposes of politics, voyeurism and nostalgia, among other things.
Family Album addresses the concerns of previous bodies of work in the field, such as the poignantly beautiful exhibition undertaken by Geoffrey Batchen titled Forget Me Not (2005), which had influenced Jain during the process of editing the film. Her engagement with the affective quality of photographs and the material importance of albums to the construction of memories relates directly to Batchen’s concerns. Batchen’s exhibition and accompanying text deeply analyze family photographs and their extensions into the material world. He convincingly separates photography’s capacity to invoke ‘memory’ that is “subjective, selective, fuzzy in outline and changes over time, a visibly malleable form of fiction” (2005:8) from being an artifact of ‘history’ which is clear, factual and informative. It is only when photographs undergo ‘material transformation’, he says (which can include their placement in albums by family and friends apart from accretions such as text, paint and cloth), that they ‘induce the full, sensorial experience of involuntary memory’ (ibid: 94). The images in Batchen’s exhibition suffer from the loss of this very ‘memory’, and also ‘history’, due to their dislocation from original space and ownership. The elements for affective engagement are all there and readily identified by him in hand-made flowers and embroidery, human hair, and calligraphic notes, yet the specific personal memories that they are meant to ignite are lost forever in a foreign context. Jain’s work makes the essential connect between history and memory by undertaking the project of having families speak to her of their own photographs. Film as medium here actively guides viewers to enter memory rather than mourning its absence, which might be the case with other archival photographs.
To return to the film, Jain’s method entails that she asks similar questions to a set of families: questions about love, education, visibility in public, the preservation and value of photographs for their descendants and the changing institutions of marriage and domestic living. The crisscrossing narratives seem disjunctive at first, but soon unite in their common goal of reviving memories, through images, of women from similar cultural and economic backgrounds. They are the educated, well-read, introspective and philosophically inclined elite of Calcutta, with stories to offer. Family Album does not attempt to be historically comprehensive, focusing perhaps by virtue of the camera’s selective presence among those who could afford the luxury of photography in the past. It was they who also permitted the camera to view women, albeit privately, and whose descendants now have the desire to preserve their histories. In the words of Subhamita Chaudhuri “these photographs are a part of my life. I have grown up looking at them” (Fig. 1, Family Album, Chapter 10). Shelly Deb of the Nabakrishna Deb family, one of the oldest families in Calcutta, still residing in its mansion in Shovabazar, exemplifies this desire for preservation as she is the rare conduit for stories of joint family living (Figs. 2a, 2b, 2c). She narrates changes in domestic living, dressing, rituals of marriage and the life of a wedded couple within the mansion, through the ages.
This is a shift from the intent of Jain’s City of Photos (2005), which engages with the street for its studios, the ordinariness of clientele and their aspirations for the extraordinary articulated though photos. The earlier film had presented narratives outside the album, emanating from individual photographs whose subjects related their expectations from them, and who had hired the studio as an agent to further these expectations. The tones for Family Album’s photographs are black and white and sepia, evoking the rarity of the images, their value in age and saturation with history, while City of Photos engages with the iridescence of color, the humor of Photoshop and the multiplicity of postcard size prints in post-Independence India. Both films hence address different aspects of photography, albeit through similar subjective directorial methods.
Family Album begins with Sevati Mitra’s account of an 1894 photograph, now punctured with termite infestation, of an old tribal retainer, Roghur Ma Buri, crouching with a stick. The image gives a sense of security, Mitra says, which emanates from Buri—her mother’s caretaker’s mother (Fig. 3). Buri may not have been family by blood, but her presence in the family album attested to the belief that women, even of different social classes, supported each other through marriage and maternity. The timing of Jain’s arrival in the Mitra household in 2004 was significant, as Sevati’s memory failed a few years later (by 2006, when Jain returned to her), relegating any remaining stories to oblivion.
A similar note is struck in one of the last narratives in the film, in which Sibaji Bandopadhyay points to the termination of the family tree with himself and his brother in the 34th generation, as neither of them have progeny. There is thus the impending awareness of loss of history surrounding family photographs, when the last ones to tell the stories die out. Binding the two ends of the film is a sense of future loss of pictorial history, placing the film on the fragile, valuable ground of knowledge salvaged just in time. There is a sense of foreboding in an otherwise visually excessive scape, as the viewer receives these multiple narratives with curiosity, amusement and wonder, album after album. While Bandopadhyay’s account of a photogenic mother who “was always imagining that there were cameras all around her” testifies to a serious familial engagement with the visual device that recreated the imagined spaces and aspirations of an upper middle class family for future generations, Jain points to a paradox of loss when she says that “not all photographs had families who could tell their stories” (Fig. 4), bringing into the frame also photos free of albums, randomly juxtaposed against one another.
Within her narratives from a handful of families, the film presents a range of possible familial histories of old Calcutta, and in turn, the histories of their dealings with the camera. The first and oldest image of Roghur Ma Buri is an almost ethnographic presentation of a woman, devoid of clues regarding location or context, with the subject staring back in alarmed stillness at the camera, much like the subjects of the People of India series (1868–75). The sitter’s ease with the lens augments more than a century later, as evidenced by Sibaji Bandopadhyay’s eloquent analysis of his mother Chinmoyee Bannerjea’s experiments with play-acting in front of the camera. In a newly independent India with state policies that reconfigured families and where women were educated, Chinmoyee’s generation reveled in cross-dressing, playing characters from the ordinary life of higher classes (Sahibs at a tea party or dressed in saris styled like the progressive Brahmos) (Figs. 5a, 5b, 5c) or of those lower than themselves (middle class working women carrying vanity bags or laboring women with pots of water at their hips) (Fig. 6). These activities were conducted secretly, as women from the Bannerjea family were not allowed to roam the streets in fancy dress or, as in the case of ChobiGhosh and the Nabakrishna Deb family’s women, to descend to the street at all. Rooftops of mansions served as locations for escapades in recreational photography, where no one would see them and the sun generously granted natural light.
Images for private entertainment such as these were spontaneous and playful, as compared to ‘presentation photographs’, known today as matrimonial photographs of women, which were usually composed in photographic studios. Such portraits of Chobi Ghosh and Chinmoyee Bannerjea (Figs. 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 8c) were formally composed with conservative clothing. In his mother’s averted gaze, Bandopadhyay sees “a longing, there is a foreboding, there is also a hope and hopelessness mixed in this photograph. There is also a wistful seductiveness mixed in a very different order” (Chapter 9, Family Album). Discussants such as Sibaji Bandopadhyay, Tapati and Subhamita Chaudhuri reveal the rich texts behind the images, such as the disapproval elicited from prospective grooms’ families towards Chobi Ghosh’s unusually multiple talents in the arts and sports (testified to by the shining medals inserted into the frame of her presentation photograph), or the clever concealment of Chinmoyee’s possibly injured leg in her half-portrait. These particular images occupy an indeterminable space between the photographic studio and the home, with formal bodily postures arranged in a domestic setting. In general, the movement of the camera from the studio to the home marks the democratization of photographic technology, giving unprecedented freedom to people in terms of subject, space and visual configuration. The inclusion of images from both sites within the album evokes memories of ease or discomfiture, as varied social functions, such as matrimony, are fulfilled in front of the lens.
Marriage decidedly proliferated photographable moments in the life of a woman. After posing for the matrimonial portrait on the grounds of which she was ‘selected’ by her groom, she entered the wedding album and then the larger family album. Here, she was embedded within a household possibly as large as twenty-two members, (as in the case of Shelly Deb of the Nabakrishna Deb family), or as compact as a nuclear unit with her husband and children (Chinmoyee and Niranjan Bannerjea). Conjugal photos speak volumes of times when child marriages were common, with the young bride, bedecked in the clothes and jewels of a grown woman, shown standing obediently next to her older groom (Fig. 9a). Amitava Chaudhuri reconstructs, through pictures, the surprisingly personal details of his grandmother Lobonyabala Chaudhuri’s early days in her married home, where her transition from girl to woman was marked by the stepping in of her husband as companion, replacing her toys (Fig. 9b). Chaudhuri’s empathy extends to un-photographable moments such as her first night in her husband’s bedroom, from which she came out livid and defiant within a few minutes, revolted by his attempts to caress her, and went to sleep with her parents-in-law. In the case of an adult couple such as Chinmoyee and NiranjanBannerjea, photographs of romance smoothing over the emotional and physical turmoil of this transition are nostalgically discussed by their son, with anecdotes about their honeymoon and the camera duplicating the lover’s gaze (Fig. 10).
The film, through its subjects, dialogically elicits the recall of conjugal intimacy in photographs. Chobi Ghosh, a woman who has the privileged freedom to study and play sports despite being married with two children, appears as the object of her husband’s gaze as she recounts how he photographed her from the doorway of the study as she sat studying for her Indian Administrative Services (IAS) exam. This is followed by another image with her head on the table as she had fallen asleep (Figs. 11a and b). The sleeping, still, inert woman appears beautiful and sensuous in this suite of images, quite in contrast to Bandopadhyay’s grandmother’s unusual conjugal portrait with her husband Sirish Chandra Mitra. Draped across a mournful Mitra’s lap is his wife’s corpse, elegant in a white sari, with eyes still open as if in tragic recognition of her own departure. The location of such a postmortem photograph within the household, framed above the doorway of a room, compels the resident family to repeatedly engage with it. The image, extant outside the album, framed and displayed to commemorate the departed, shapes the spatial configuration of the home, eliciting among other feelings, reverence and fear from its viewers. Taken at the burning ghat just before her cremation, this is a moment of “staged love”, in Bandopadhyay’s words, “striking a perfect balance between love and death...” (Fig. 12)
The desire to immortalize the departed echoes historic tendencies in Indian painting to picture the dying/dead, famously noted in the Emperor Jahangir’s summon to the court painter Balchand to draw a sketch of the dying Inayat Khan in 1618–19 AD. The image Balchand produced had a photographic quality in documenting the suffering human body at its most vulnerable, and perhaps most fascinating moment. In the early twentieth century, when photographs were still not widely produced through personally owned cameras, professional studios were regularly hired by families to photograph the corpse that left no other image to be remembered by. The photographer-artist then ‘opened the eyes’ of the deceased by a skillful application of paint on the image, infusing it with life. As portrayed in City of Photos, this is a practice aided by digital technology to produce seamless results today, pulling the dead back into the living realm of memories in the making.
It is notable that while Family Album discusses women as the subjects of photography, it does not explore the possibility of women as photographers. The premium on their visual presence can be discerned from the way Chobi Ghosh, Shelly Deb and Lobonyabala Chaudhuri remained guarded from the everyday experience of being looked at and stayed within the confines of mansions, looking out through latticed windows at life passing by (Figs. 13a, 13b). This portrayal of women has urgent counterpoints in Bengali history where pioneering women photographers such as Annapurna Dutta and Sarojini Ghosh worked. These photographers have been studied for their contribution to the camera’s story in India by Malavika Karlekar (2006). The physical and emotional access women photographers may have had to the lives of other women in purdah was in contrast to the formal distance maintained in the male dominated trade of studio portraiture. An unpublished image by Annapurna Dutta (early twentieth century) of an old woman tended by a nurse from the Hiteshranjan Sanyal Memorial Archive at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, testifies to this dimension in photography of and by women. This is not to say, however, that the women in Family Album are not conversant with the ways of the camera or do not devolve their own physical manners in front of it. The camera, in some ways, gave unprecedented freedom to the bodily comportment of the women who posed in masquerades well as in celebratory moments, affirming their active role as agents shaping the larger photographic practice of the times.
The film concludes with young Subhamita’s praise for her grandmother’s skill with the camera: “my grandmother was actually a very good photographer”, she reveals. “She took all these photographs of my father (as a baby)”. Jain does not explore this facet further but leaves an open-ended possibility for the authorship of photographs to be differentiated by sex. The film’s potency lies in its attempt to enter the gaze of the one who sits for the camera, as if entering the stereoscope through which Subhamita views photographs, observing details of dress, sexuality, social position and cultural values that might otherwise be overlooked. (Fig. 14). She poses pertinent questions on the exclusion of women from family trees, despite being bearers of such beauty, skill and familial pride. “I don’t know why they did it,” Subhamita says, turning pictorially affirmed history on its head. “It seems like the Chaudhury family has no women!” In her filmed remark is the confrontation of her own visual presence with her genealogical absence from a legacy of feminine representation.
A photograph bears within it the possibility of multiple meanings, read through various visual, oral or textual narratives that may diverge or converge with each other. Val Williams sums up the essence of family photographs released into the public visual realm in the text Who’s Looking at the Family?: “Narrative is a complex and sometimes baffling endeavour. Every storyteller has a point of view, conveyed through a recounting of fact and event, but remaining partial and idiosyncratic... the families they (the photographers) have photographed have entered a public arena, giving us, the audience, an opportunity to observe, to make comment, to judge and compare. The intimacy of these narratives defies a concept of reportage, or universalism, or of humanism. They invoke ghosts, perhaps summon demons, or even perform the act of redemption” (1994:75; italics mine). Nishtha Jain’s filmic investigation into the images of these Bengali families melds together her own perceptions with those narrated orally by the owners of photographs. A rich and complex text that attempts to comprehend the socio-cultural fabric of the region thus emerges, engaging with the history of India before Independence through stories that challenge any overarching generalizations or assumptions the viewer might bring.
Suryanandini Narain is a PhD candidate studying at the Centre for Studies in Social Science, Calcutta, and the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
- Batchen, Geoffrey. 2004. Forget Me Not. Princeton Architectural Press, New York.
- Ghosh, Siddhartha. 1988. ChhabiTola. Ananda, Calcutta.
- Gutman, Judith Mara. 1982. Through Indian Eyes. Oxford University Press and International Centre for Photography, New York.
- Karlekar, Malvika (ed.) 2006. Visualizing Indian Women 1875 – 1947. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
- Ramaswamy, Sumathy (ed.) 2003. Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices and Ideologies in Modern India. New Delhi, Sage Publications.
- Williams, Val. 1994. Who’s Looking at the Family? The Barbican Art Gallery, London.
- MacDougall, David and Judith, (dir.) 1991. Photo Wallahs.
- Jain, Nishtha (dir.) 2005. City of Photos.Raintree Films, supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore.
- Jain, Nishtha (dir.) 2011. Family Album. Raintree Films, supported by India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
The Chaudhuri family tree:
Sumathi Ramaswamy describes inter-ocularity in the following way, “The power—and authority—of the visual in the modern Indian public sphere emerges from the fact that it inhabits such an ‘interocular’ or ‘intervisual’ field” (Mirzoeff 2000:7), “overlapping, intersecting and interlocking with other images and in conjuncture with different media, triggering associations, catalysing memories, rendering the unfamiliar recognisable, and frequently reconfiguring the recognisable ... in other words, no visual image is self sufficient, bounded, insulated; instead, it is open, porous, permeable, and ever available for appropriation” (Ramaswamy, 2003).
In conversation with me, Jain spoke directly in support of her approach, “A little about my subjective approach to filmmaking: I feel most comfortable with the subjective approach to filmmaking. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily appear in my films, sometimes I don’t even have a narration but my presence is established clearly through my gaze, my composition and through the nature of my relationship with the protagonists. I believe objectivity in documentary filmmaking is impossible and undesirable because reality changes as soon as the camera enters a situation. So why pretend otherwise? I don’t believe in the fly-on-the-wall kind of camera showing ‘objective’ reality. I establish my presence and sometimes even intervene to change the ‘reality’ especially in situations demanding intervention.” In a statement for the film she comments on the activity of labeling photographs and writing in scrap albums, an activity replicated by her through graphics in the film “Giving context to pictures. Giving them backgrounds, labeling them. The stories behind pictures give them a context which cannot be seen with plain eyes. How we arrange albums. How we label. Labels become very important in how we look at pictures.” (Jain, May 2011)
The differences between the two initiatives, by author and filmmaker, seeking to understand the relations between memory, history, and photography, have to do with research, resource and intent. Similar differences can be seen between the archival purposes of the Alkazi Collection of Photography in New Delhi and the archive (also called ‘Family Album’) at the School for Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta. The former, also having lent images to Batchen’s exhibition, immaculately documents ‘history’ with careful detailing of facts that can be culled about the image, the material copy of which they possess. The latter is a project that gathers, through a network of researchers, digitized versions of personal albums, accompanied by interviews documenting the ‘memories’ evoked by the photographs.
J. Forbes Watson and John William Kaye (eds). 1868 – 75. The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations, with Descriptive Letterpress, of The Races and Tribes of Hindustan. India Museum, London W.H. Allen and Co., 13, Waterloo Place, S.W., publishers to the India Office
I refer to comments within the film made by Sibaji Bandopadhyay on the new family planning programs introduced by the State. The propagation of small families meant considerable freedom to the nuclear family and the woman within it. He says “It has some connection with nuclear family planning programs initiated at this time. A secret revolution took place in the bedroom of my parents’ generation. I see this as a kind of celebration of a new mode of life, of a new mode of familial structure... a new inaugural... otherwise it is hard to imagine why the camera should be invited into the most sacred spaces. We are the first products of the planned family.”
With matrimonial portraits, women encountered the camera as a material facilitator of the social rite of marriage. The image was of utmost importance as a bearer of their character and wifely capabilities, to be discerned by potential grooms and their families. In a social order with restrictions on the movement and visibility of a woman, the presentation photograph stood for her absent presence, a voiceless persona seldom reciprocated by a photograph of the groom to be. The phenomenon persists today with a premium attached to the viewing of a prospective bride (in photos and in person) in the arranged method of marriage, thereby catapulting to great importance the photographic studios across the country for their professional skill in producing these images. Family Album’s documentation of such photographs and the hope and anxiety surrounding them touches the pulse of those for whom the matrimonial image functions as their staged approximation of the ideal Indian wife. Jain’s City of Photos captures the detailed process of preparing for a matrimonial shoot and the discomfiture surrounding it, while earlier work by David and Judith MacDougall (Photo Wallahs; 1991) had also explored the same subject.
Siddhartha Ghosh, in his treatise titled ‘ChhabiTola’ (1988) on early photographic practice in Bengal, mentions Sarojini Ghosh as the first Bengali woman to have taken up professional photography. The first mention of her work is in the daily Anandabazar Patrika in 1898, as the owner of a studio on Waterloo Street, Calcutta. Annapurna Dutta followed in 1910 and made photography her only means of livelihood. She did not own a studio, but worked out of her home, which was equipped with a darkroom. Being part of an influential Brahmo family she had access to important social functions, literary events and the foremost Muslim families of Calcutta, whom she photographed. Her career was to span three decades.