“Ummijaan’s Pictures Were Nice”: Thinking about Haleema Hashim’s Photography
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On an afternoon in 2013, a dozen people were gathered in the bedroom of a high-rise apartment occupied by eighty-five-year-old Haleema Hashim in Ernakulam, the financial district of the South Indian city of Cochin (figure 1). Haleema’s daughters, Yasmin, Jabeen, and identical twins Suman and Kiran; her niece; and her daughter-in-law Tasneem were seated at her bedside, passing around photo albums and answering questions posed by her great-grandson Nihaal Faizal, who was visiting from Bangalore. Nihaal was standing next to Haleema, whom he called “Ummijaan,” and holding the Agfa Isolette III that she had wielded for almost three decades. Names and dates were searched for, memories were conjured, shared, revisited, and confused, and Haleema’s children, cousins, aunts, uncles and penpals emerged as the participants — or, as Ariella Azoulay writes in The Civil Contract of Photography (2008), the citizens — of her photography.
A year later, I, too, became involved in this spirited cosmopolitan and transgenerational photographic encounter. I was not family, neither spoke nor understood the language in which its conversations were happening, and was watching this particular episode as a video on a laptop in London. My participation stemmed from my doctoral research on the practices and afterlives of amateur photography in India, which had led me to get in touch with Nihaal when I saw an entry under his name on the crowd-sourced online archive Indian Memory Project. “130 — My great-grandmother, the Incredible Photographer” introduced Haleema as one of the only photographers, and certainly the sole woman, to enthusiastically photograph in the Cochin-based Kutchi Memon community to which she belonged. The latter were Sunni Muslim traders who had settled in the historic port city from 1815 onward and remain close-knit through the Kutchi dialect, hotel and seafood businesses, marriage, and philanthropy. Specifically, Haleema had moved with her parents from Rangoon to the densely populated neighborhood of Mattancherry in her early childhood, and following her marriage to Hashim Usman, in 1946, and their growing financial prosperity, into Yasmin Manzil, a joint family house on the leafy and residential Darussalam Road in Kochangadi.
Despite being an “outsider,” I was struck by the playfulness and melancholy of what was unfolding on my screen, and by how its cast of characters had aged and moved on from the spaces, gestures, attire, and expressions of Haleema’s photographs, taken between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, which I had become familiar with through scans made and sent to me by Nihaal.
In them, the women of the household go about their chores and hobbies: sewing on a new machine (figure 2), chopping vegetables, sipping tea from porcelain crockery (figure 3), reading the Qu’ran (figure 4), and perusing the popular Urdu women’s magazines Shamma, Sitara, or Hoor, which arrived by post from Lahore, and “filmi” magazines such as the English-language Screen Stories (figure 5). Those closest to her, like her sister-in-law Fathima (figure 6) and even her reputedly formidable mother-in-law, Zuleikha (figure 7), look up from these activities with happy candor. The children are, of course, ever-present: Her niece Selma cycles by (figure 8); a cheeky-faced Tasneem and her sister Naaz are clad in floral-print dresses that clash wonderfully with the printed textile Haleema has placed them in front of (figure 9); Suman and Kiran attach themselves to the staircase as a grinning, twinning duo (figure 10) and pose, as individuals, in front of a shiny Ambassador car (figure 11); her niece Naheed strikes a starlet’s pose (figure 12), and gamely sizes up a pet goat in the backyard (figure 13). Even, or especially, the youngest children are pictured sinking into the sofa (figure 14) or seated atop a table (figure 15), clutching the telephone (figure 16), the camera case or whatever gadget was at hand as if it were a prized toy and standing at attention, their tiny frames decked out in smart suits and shoes and accessories such as sunglasses and hair clips (figures 17 and 18).
As the men of the family spent the day at their offices in Matancherry, they are more elusive figures. It is even likely that their relative absence in Yasmin Manzil allowed the others to be a little less self-conscious, a little more frivolous in their grins, winks, and flourishes, their photographic traversing of this world.
Hashim, however, is sometimes visible as a co-conspirator, catching the camera’s gaze just as Naheed plants a kiss on his cheek (figure 19) and being the camera-operator whenever Haleema was to be its subject. The equanimity he exudes in Haleema’s photographs led Nihaal to assert that although his great-grandfather “was always a very strict man (he wouldn’t let his son Javed into the house if he came home late, wouldn’t let his daughter talk to her fiancé) . . . in their pictures I see another side of him — the romantic husband.” 
In the years since 2014, Haleema has passed away, and these digitized documents and interactions have come to chart not just how an unlikely person came to photograph in unexpected settings, but also the intimate politics of gender, religion, and consumption shaping postcolonial modernity. All the more so because it is now apparent that there are many photographs by Haleema that can no longer be found, several that were destroyed or radically reconfigured, some that perhaps should not be seen, and yet others that were never made. There are episodes that have no definitive record but throw long shadows, and there are numerous individuals who haunt the proceedings as instigators, saboteurs, and even fragmented arms and torsos rather than conscientious participants, empowered citizens.
In 1965, for example, Haleema was prohibited from photographing at the marriage of her cousin Haleema Iqbal on the grounds that taking/making a picture of the face of a living being, whether animal or human, is haram, forbidden by Islamic law. Two images survive because Haleema clicked down on the shutter just seconds before she was apprehended by her older cousin Zohra, with Haleema telling Nihaal as many as fifty years later that she had been deeply hurt and insulted by this incident.
In 1995, Yasmin Manzil, the primary site of Haleema’s photography, was sold to the Raksha charity and turned into a school for children with special needs, and the different branches of the family moved into separate apartments in Fort Cochin. In 2006, when they were reunited by their relocation to the Bay Pride Apartments tower block in Ernakulam, Haleema distributed her albums among her eight children and told Tasneem, “Take whatever you want of these pictures. Everyone take their own pictures, now where am I going to care for them? I don’t think I can do it anymore.” She also burned her negatives, citing tiredness and lack of space and interest in continuing to be responsible for their preservation as her reason for doing so.
According to Nihaal, it was around the same time that one of Haleema’s sisters-in-law “burnt all of her family albums as she believed that photography was the work of the devil. She burnt about a thousand photographs, anything she could find in her house really.” Nihaal, moreover, was convinced that “a large part of it might just have been photographs taken by Ummijaan because they used to live in Yasmin Manzil together for a period,” although he stressed that “this photo burning lady very rarely appears in Ummijaan's pictures — possibly the only woman resident of Yasmin Manzil who doesn’t appear more than a couple of times.” And in 2014, Nihaal’s curation of sixty-six photographs for an exhibition at the Kochi Muziris Biennale entitled Ummijaan Making Visible a World Within raised the objections of another sister-in-law. Kulsum opposed the display of those photographs in which she and her daughter Firdaus appeared. She insisted that they were not modestly dressed, as she wore a sari and not a burkha, which became the dress code among the women in the family in the 1990s.
Nihaal, however, was supported by his grandparents and parents and the majority of the family’s enthusiasm for the exhibition, such that their priorities took precedence. Of greatest importance was having Haleema’s photography — especially her portraits of women — acknowledged as an artistic documentation of Kutchi Memon cultural and social life. Having decided to nonetheless hold the exhibition (figures 20 and 21), Nihaal explained:
We had to keep a special opening for the extended family with a censored version of the exhibition to which Kulsum chachi also came. I hung back the pictures and let the show on. Kulsum chachi heard about this and demanded they be taken down, so I promised to hang a black cloth over it. My grandmother stitched these and I installed them onto the frames with my mother. Now the pictures of Kulsum chachi were installed in the gallery veiled. I positioned the decision on to the visitors — they could choose to lift the veils and see the pictures, or pass them by un-seen.
This article weaves these apparently exceptional moments into the story of Haleema’s photography. It argues that her practice was acutely embodied and affective, deftly innovating in the slim photographic cultures she had access to via local studios, magazines, and films; and that it entails an equally intricate afterlife. I attend to both to the images and to their collection, digitization, and publicization by Nihaal, which has transformed them into sites of fond family memories and community representations, as well as of heated contestation.
Haleema taught herself how to photograph when her husband, Hashim, was given the Agfa Isolette III by his cousin Saleh Mohammad around 1949. As the head of Indomarine, one of Asia’s biggest seafood businesses and a politician of some success, Mohammad often returned from travels bearing expensive and fashionable objects. This particular object was a lightweight folding camera requiring 120 mm film that was produced in Germany and sold worldwide from the late 1940s.
By holding it steady in the palm of her hand, Haleema could set shutter speed and aperture, bring it up to her eye, peer through a small viewfinder to compose the image, and press down on the shutter-release button; the film was wound by turning a wheel at the back of the camera until the frame number appeared in a little red window. The camera was known for its reliability, durability, and unobtrusiveness, but became outdated in around 1960, by which time Haleema had transitioned to a Yashica twin lens reflex camera.
Its operation entailed a different kind of looking and handling, not least because “the upper lens projects an image of the subject via a mirror on to a ground glass screen in the top of the camera, while the lower one projects a similar image on to the film: the ground glass image therefore shows at all times the full-size picture as it will appear on the negative, upright but reversed left to right.” The Yashica also had a magnifier, which would have allowed Haleema to critically focus the image; a built-in framefinder, enabling direct vision at eye level; and a depth of field indicator.
As explained in a contemporary user guide, it worked best when held “as steady as possible; the slightest shake, even if its effect is not visible in the negative, becomes apparent in the enlargement,” so much so that it involved “sling[ing] the camera around your neck, supporting it against the chest,” and “stand[ing] with your legs apart for extra steadiness”; and in “special situations . . . hold[ing] the camera above your head to shoot over crowds . . . shoot[ing] around the corner . . . or for action shots you can use the eye-level finder.” “[T]ime exposures,” on the other hand, meant “mount[ing] the camera on a tripod” and working “the shutter with the aid of the cable release.”
A portrait of Haleema and Hashim taken in their bedroom in 1955 indicates how profoundly this camera embedded itself in their lives, and how they came up with their own ways of photographing (figure 22). Haleema poses upright and somewhat at an angle for Hashim, who, in turn, is absorbed in the task of looking at her image as it appears in the viewfinder. The oval mirror they are standing in front of delightfully doubles and fragments their bodies and concentrates the space in which they stand. In the reflection, Hashim’s sleeve seems to touch Haleema’s sari palu; and Haleema, though turning her head toward her husband, looks out of the photograph with an anticipatory, almost mischievous smile. It also brings to the fore the motif of her sari and the slender, silvery elegance of her earrings and necklace, suggesting that Haleema had dressed up to be photographed.
Indeed, everything about Haleema’s photography was deliberate. She persuaded her husband to buy rolls of black-and-white film for her, and to have them developed and printed at the local photography studios in Fort Cochin during his evening walks. The bursts of color photographs dated to 1959 and 1966 (figures 23–26), meanwhile, were the result of a few film rolls given to her by Hashim’s business associate, who had returned from America, and her daughter Yasmin, who lived in Kuwait.
In accordance with the conventions of aniconism dictated and followed by the majority of Kutchi Memons in Cochin, none of her images was framed or displayed openly in Yasmin Manzil or any of her relatives’ houses. Instead, Haleema arranged them in albums, likewise sourced from the studios, carefully placing each in the four little paper, and later plastic, corners designed to hold an image in place. She stored these albums in a cupboard in her bedroom, and when the children asked to see them, she would take them out. Then, under Haleema’s instructions to “be careful not to tear the paper” between the photographs, they would look at them together. Occasionally, Haleema would send a photograph to relatives and to friends whom she knew through the “penpals section” of her Urdu journals, including a lady who lived in Haleema’s birthplace, Rangoon, and her closest friend, Zuleikha, who lived in Madras. She imprinted a stamp bearing her name and address (figure 27) on the back of the photograph just as many commercial and amateur photographers did in the twentieth century, though she might have done this in relation to the penpal culture she was part of.
Haleema also submitted at least one photograph to a magazine. A portrait of Jabeen, who was born in 1956 (figure 28), was published in an issue of Hoor with a counterpart now in Nihaal’s possession (figure 29) suggesting Haleema had singled out this image from a series.
The taking of photographs was by far the most deliberate, time-consuming, and physically arduous aspect of Haleema’s photography. According to Tasneem, Haleema would “call us somewhere, make us pose and then photograph us. She wouldn’t come photograph us in the middle of something.” She often photographed her sisters-in-law, daughters, and nieces, also wearing signature saris and jewelry in front of her bedroom mirror (figures 30, 31), yet she especially “liked the entrance — the veranda outside. There was a line of sofas there and it was filled with windows and the door, so there was a lot of light. A lot of the photographs were taken there. On the staircase, in the garden.”
I was shown these sites when I visited Yasmin Manzil together with Tasneem, Arif, and Nihaal in October 2016. The house had a somewhat gloomy, crowded, and institutional air: The comfortable items of furniture that populate Haleema’s photographs have been replaced, partition walls have come up, and signs have been put onto the walls in keeping with its current use as a special-needs school; trees have been felled, and neighboring properties tower over the garden. That the connectivity between indoor and outdoor spaces and the play of light through the art deco window and door grilles inspired Haleema’s photography was nonetheless obvious (figures 32–35).
It was these features that Haleema would use to put her subjects “in place.” Tasneem recalled that Haleema would invoke the English word light rather than the Kutchi word sau to issue commands such as “Move your face toward the light” and
the light’s coming from there, if you stand there, the light will show nicely. Stand as if the light is coming from behind you. Move this side. Stand by the window . . . Sit, stand. Sit there, stand there — by the door, by the window. . . . In the garden. That’s about all I remember. Stand with a smile. Look here. Look there. She would say things like that. There aren’t many pictures in which she asks us to look at the camera, are there? Mostly it was natural, as if the camera wasn’t there.
Haleema also photographed her subjects in the more luxurious grounds of Rafeeq Mansion, which was owned by another branch of the family and directly opposite Yasmin Manzil, and in the parks of Cochin. Tasneem remembers going on
photographic excursions to Subash Park in Ernakulam. We would go there at noon, when the sun was its strongest. Ummi and the kids from Fort Cochin would come there with the driver and we would meet them at the park, as we lived close by. All the kids would get very excited and would get dressed in nice clothes with bright colours. The whole thing revolved around photography. We would quickly go, take the pictures and leave, as it would be too hot.
Although Tasneem insists her memory of the particularity of Haleema’s practice is limited, she offers a compelling account of Haleema making the most of her Afga Isolette III and Yashica cameras by using natural lighting and favoring particular angles, poses, spaces, distances, and, when using color film, shades of red and green. She reveals, moreover, how thoroughly Haleema’s subjects also familiarized themselves with these photographic commands. This does not mean that they always complied with what Haleema wanted; they also ignored, misunderstood, and resisted her by not sitting still, not moving in time, not looking up, shying away, twisting around, or, as suggested by the head peeking through the doorway behind an orderly arrangement of Yasmin’s friends (figure 36), placing themselves in the picture space and claiming the camera’s — if not Haleema’s — attention.
The same might be said of the obscured faces and mysterious shadows that hold sway over certain photographs. In a portrait that is ostensibly of Haleema’s cherubic nephew Rafeeq, a sari-clad presence is half concealed in a doorway (figure 37); in another, an anonymous arm holds Rafeeq’s brother, Masood, as he swings (figure 38). While talking about these photographs, Nihaal acknowledged how:
[T]here were many maids employed at Yasmin Manzil, including Sarah who was an old lady that looked after Ummijaan’s mother-in-law Zuleikha and who was also the cook. There were also Ayesha and Hajira during Nani [Tasneem]’s childhood. There were also some other helpers George and Anthony that would clean the house. Mary was a nanny that looked after Jabeen and later her children, and also Suman and Kiran. She too stayed with family until she died. Mary was Ummijaan's maid and Tracy was Kulsum chachi’s maid.
Nihaal said he was then reminded of “a story about Mary that my grandfather is convinced is real. Mary was apparently haunted by a ghost and would suddenly speak in a British accented English in a man’s voice (Mary who only otherwise knew and spoke Malayalam).” Continuing this story, which evocatively summons the specter of subaltern contestations of elite authority, Nihaal specified that the ghost was thought to belong to “a man who lived in a Fort Cochin tea estate house that she had once visited. This apparently went on for 2–3 years.”  Although Nihaal’s grandmother Tasneem had “never heard this,” his grandfather was sure that “it would especially happen when Zuleikha scolded her. Nana doesn’t remember what she would say or how the ghost went away.” 
Such sparks of contingency, or concurrence, not only punctuate Haleema’s photography, but also constructed Haleema and her subjects’ impressions of other visual cultures, such as the photography produced by professionals in studios or for magazines. The latter was found wanting, although Haleema’s photography was informed by professional practices to the extent that she enlisted household objects and children’s toys as props, pieces of furniture to reflect, angle, and add texture, and plants in the garden to create “naturalized” backdrops. She was evidently determined to craft a practice akin to “formal” and at times even “filmi” portraiture, evincing impatience and incomprehension in her subjects and, in the case of one or two of the younger children, a veritably frustrated attempt to escape the frame (figure 39). Tasneem, however, was keen to differentiate these experiences from the process of having her portrait taken at the local studio, for which her descriptions were brief to the point of cutting, and prefixed by an even more adamant insistence that she could not remember it because they hardly went to the studio, despite Nihaal reminding her of the existence of several studio portraits within the family albums.
When pressed on the subject, Tasneem eventually conceded that on occasions such as her wedding anniversary and a child’s birthday, they would “have to go” and would do so “together, never alone.” She gave the impression that it was a rushed and crowded affair of having one’s image “taken,” one after the other. Tasneem critiqued how “the pictures in the studio were highly made up,” not least because they would themselves have to “apply make up” and were subjected to all sorts of contortions and distortions that did not “feel natural.” As a result, she found that “the pictures at the studio would seem like they were too still . . . our eyes, our eyebrows would look completely artificial. They would be made dark and distorted.”
Tasneem’s judgment harbors a keen loyalty to her aunt and mother-in-law and perhaps a dislike for the studio that was personal to her, for as Christopher Pinney’s work on the northwestern Indian town of Nagda has shown, the studio is so often a space of fun, play, and fantasy. Yet having visited studios in Ernakulam (figures 40 and 41), which have not changed drastically since the 1950s, I was able to imagine the impatience of a young girl waiting in the reception area to be ushered into a dressing room with a three-quarter-length mirror and some hairbrushes laid out on a little shelf. And, having shuffled into the main studio through a narrow door, her reluctance to pose for a photographer who, while not necessarily a man (the wife of the current owner of Krishna Nair Studios often takes clients’ portraits), was probably a stranger. Being expected to stand still against a decorative paper backdrop that was peeling at the edges, to perch on chairs whose leathery padding was unmistakably worn from previous customers or whose scratchy weaving might tear at the soft fabric of her clothes, and to wear makeup under the heat and glare of studio lamps might well have induced claustrophobia and estrangement for Tasneem and her relatives.
This disparity is also evident in the contrast between Haleema’s photographs and those taken professionally. A studio portrait of Haleema’s sister-in-law Zainab shows her photographed alone, yet there is little individuality about her (figure 42). Her sari merges into the background, her hair is held in a quite stern center parting, and her expression is unfathomable. Although this image has also been cherished — it has survived until today — Tasneem’s tendency, when looking at it, was to gravitate back to the memory of Haleema’s photography, to repeat that its effects/affects were “more natural,” and to heartily conclude that “Ummijaan’s pictures were nice. They were nice to look at.”
Nice is hardly the most evocative word, but its continuous invocation by those who are in and have looked at Haleema’s photographs is striking. Even Nihaal, an artist and the member of his family most inclined to expand on the technical and aesthetic details of Haleema’s photography, described his great-grandparents’ self-portrait via its “nice intimacy.” Nice, I would argue, puts into words that sense of feeling welcomed and at home in photography. Despite the demanding attributes of Haleema’s camera work, so many of her subjects appear confident and even happy to pose. Haleema’s photography, in both its settings and its methods, does not simply depict the intimate but also instills intimacy, pulling the photographer and the photographed and the photograph and its viewer into a close sociability.
To emphasize the difference between Haleema’s photography and that of the studio is not to deny that Haleema’s work was ambitious and undertaken with an eye for the elegance and glamour of the occasion. In 1950, Haleema portrayed Fathima as a bride (figure 43). She thereafter brought her camera to all the nuptial ceremonies held in the extended family, whether at Yasmin Manzil or Rafeeq Mansion, in the gardens of two other houses on Darussalam Road, or in the large halls of the Kutchi Memon residences in Ernakulam, known as Essa Manzil and Ishaq Manzil. These ceremonies consisted of the Peeti, in which an herbal paste was applied to the bride’s skin over a period of seven days,  the Mehendi, when henna was applied to her hands and legs, and the Nikah,  which was the actual marriage whereupon all guests were invited to a sumptuous but simple meal.  As Tasneem explained to me and her grandchildren in an oral-history session prompted by our photo viewings, these ceremonies were always segregated: “We would never see the men. It was sometimes in two houses. Like when a wedding happened at Rafeeq Mansion, the men would be there and the women would be across the road in Yasmin Manzil.” 
The photographs Haleema took at Peetis, Mehendis, and Nikahs were almost exclusively portraits and featuring the bride alone: They portray Zuleika Salay Mohammed, who was seventeen at the time of her wedding, in 1953; Selma Rehman and Zebunisa Yousuf, who were eighteen when they married, in 1954; Mariam Suleiman (eighteen, 1957); Rabia Razaaq (fourteen, 1958); Hairunisa Ibrahim (eighteen, 1959); the sisters Najma Nissar and Haneefa Fayaz (nineteen and eighteen, 1959); Naseema Kassim (twenty, 1960); Saira Suleiman and Hajira Zackria (nineteen and twenty, 1960); Zuleika Karim (twenty-five, 1960); Rahima Hameed (c. 1962); Tahirah Mahmood (nineteen, c. 1965); and Haleema Iqbal (1965) before Zohra’s fateful intervention. All seem to disclose a patient and attentive relationship between photographer and subject, even if children and others involve themselves (figure 44) and the shyness and uncertainty in a bride’s pose or expression is sometimes palpable (figure 45). Yet whereas Fathima, whose direct and light-hearted acknowledgment of the camera is so notable elsewhere, turns her head to the side and pulls her sari tight around her head in one portrait, others, such as Hajira, Tahira, and Zebunisa, come across as coolly assured and even pleased (figures 46–48). And, in fact, in another bridal portrait Haleema made of Fathima (figure 49), her self-consciousness is matched by her obvious amusement.
The portraits also engage the special materiality of mid-twentieth-century Kutchi Memon bridal styles. Tasneem noted that the brides were always dressed in saris, usually made from nylon fabric and of a white or cream color, and that the “jewelry was always new, for every wedding. Back then the bride only wore whatever came from her fiancé’s house. Not a single thing else. Everything would be brought from there. The comb, soap, oil, eyeliner, surma, sandals.” Tasneem could recall the specific brands of these products — “the oil was Tata’s . . . [it was] Jasmine oil. Surma [was] from a brand called Koja” — qualifying that in contrast to how “now it’s all about fashion. Wear what matches . . . back then you wear what they brought. Matching or otherwise.”  Tasneem stressed the modesty of this bridal style, claiming that “getting the bride dressed wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t have much make up back then, so it was just about combing her hair and putting some powder on her face.” 
Although this understated gracefulness brims forth in a portrait of Mariam (figure 50), holding a delicately embroidered white handkerchief up to her mouth, the teardrop-shaped tiklo on her forehead having shifted ever so slightly out of place, the series as a whole is a remarkable aesthetic negotiation. Or, rather, it is a “working out” of photography, wherein Haleema turned particular moments in the cultural life of her community to which she had privileged access, but at which she was also expected to be continuously present, into photographic opportunities. In contrast to her “everyday” photography, her bridal images explored and stirred up the gendered rituals and regimens of the ceremonial; perhaps they also provided comic relief. At the same time, they constituted tangible products, for she was able to provide the bride and her family with beautiful representations of themselves to have and to hold, with material tokens of a significant but ephemeral occasion.
This flair for detail and intimacy was, of course, extinguished when Haleema stopped photographing the brides in her family and community, before ceasing to photograph altogether in the late 1970s. By this time, others in the family had taken to photography, with Haleema gifting the Afga Isolette III to her daughter Yasmin and the Yashica to her son Arif, who is Tasneem’s husband and Nihaal’s grandfather, when he expressed an interest in photography. Wedding photography was also becoming a popular middle- and upper-class phenomenon in Kerala, and the extended family began to commission photographers such as the Joy brothers, who worked out of a studio in Convent Junction; Joseph Narakkal and Gabriel Babu; and a Kutchi Memon man named Naushad. It was thus snapshots taken on holidays abroad or special occasions at home and standardized professional images that came to fill the albums of Haleema’s extended family, insofar as they still kept albums.
It is tempting to dramatize this loss, and relate it to the fiery exchanges and literal incidents of fire that afflicted Haleema’s photography from 1965 on. It is clear that her cousin Zohra’s polemical stance affected — if not altogether obstructed — her enthusiasm for sharing her camera work with others, her ability to have it recognized and cherished as a valuable activity within her family and community. Nihaal and Tasneem concur on how Haleema thereafter never carried her camera to any weddings, her portrait of Azeeza Karim in 1968 the result of Haleema not wanting to refuse the personal request of a dear friend. She abstained from photography even at the marriages of her own daughters and of Tasneem, who married Arif in 1972.
It is, however, worth underscoring that Haleema’s own acts and articulation of dissociation, destruction, and dispersion vis-à-vis her photography were comparatively quiet, or quietist. Her burning of negatives and distribution of albums were pragmatic responses to the displacement of her photographs from her own bedroom in a much-loved home to the relatively impersonal and smaller residences, and her inability to make and maintain them due to severe knee and back pain and a stroke that eventually left her bedridden. As such, it is possible to say that Haleema also simply let photography go, devoting her time to less physically demanding activities such as knitting, reading, and watching films: While her children and grandchildren associated her with photographs, her great-grandchildren knew her through the sweaters she made them. At one point, Nihaal also reviewed his narrative of how Haleema’s photography came to an end:
While initially I felt that . . . Ummijaan . . . was forced into abandoning her practice through some social obligation, I now feel more that she had finished what she wanted to do. She had documented what she set out to — her children (photographing all eight of them), and the other women at home, Fathima and Mariam, along with the other women in the social circle. Fathima left home and Mariam passed away and thus that bit of the narrative was over too. With the refusal to photograph brides came her decision to slow down that aspect of her documentation, pursuing it only upon the personal insistence of the brides. I feel it was also a response to changing technology. I don’t feel that she was ever as comfortable with colour as she was with black and white, or if comfortable in handling, then perhaps not in principle. There was something she had spent decades trying to master — a sense of tone, of light and shadow that was different from her perceived reality. It wasn’t the photograph as we know it now, it was the photograph as a foreign image, as a document distant from reality, yet one that represented it. After abandoning it there, she never really went back. There are photographs she’s taken, for instance, during her travels, but in them she never practiced as a photographer, just took pictures, and although later she had access to digital photography in the space of the family she never attempted to engage with the medium.
In fact, thinking through the trajectory of Haleema’s photography has led me to concur with Anjali Arondekar’s critique of historians’ attachment to materials and sites that would reveal all, if only they could be located and uncovered, if only they hadn’t been destroyed; to moments of the past that would have changed the present, if only they had been allowed to flourish. “In the Absence of Reliable Ghosts” (2015) muses on the histories/historiographies that might result from “an unsettling of that attachment, from a movement away from the recursive historical dialectic of fulfillment and impoverishment.” This means that the volatility of Haleema’s photography is not something to be lamented so much as situated within the everyday and occasional observances of women, men, and children in a Kutchi Memon household that continue into this day, or read as part of the slippery business of relating to one’s self and to others.
Such phenomenological alertness is, after all, what connects two of photography’s most canonical texts. Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography (1931) and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (1979), though different in many ways, explore how the camera makes it necessary, but also possible, for an individual to encounter the world differently, step into a different posture, inhabit a different expression, do things the person would not do in any other time or place. Photography is about the anticipation that comes from immersing oneself in one’s self, or perhaps in something else, and it can be an experience that is unexpected and yet not necessarily unpleasant, and enjoyable and yet not easy. Though photography involves transformation, this can consist of slight, almost imperceptible performances, struggles, and views that Barthes also discussed, but without reference to gender, in terms of “the neutral.”
For Barthes, the “neutral” pertains to “intensities,” “gestures,” and “strategies” that fall into no clear category of positive or negative action, or dogma. “Shimmer” is “that whose aspect, perhaps whose meaning, is subtly modified according to the angle of the subject’s gaze.” “Shirking” is “to flee one’s responsibilities, to flee conflict . . . to slip, to drift, to escape.” “Weariness” is the “exhausting claim of the individual body that demands the right to social repose.” Barthes also catalogs “fright,” “anxiety,” “prayer,” “anger” (which he notes can frequently manifest as fire), “benevolence,” “memory/forgetting,” “writing,” “apathy,” “old age,” “color” and “tact.” The latter is, for Barthes, “the nonviolent refusal of reduction, the parrying of generality by inventive, unexpected, nonparadigmatizable behavior, the elegant and discreet flight in the face of dogmatism,” and makes itself felt in the making of so many of Haleema’s photographs as well as in the regimes and modes through which they then circulate.
In light of these interpretations, Kulsum’s insistence on (not) being seen in a certain way, rendered in the language of religious modesty, hovers as a tactful response to her family’s (pre)determined decision to host the 2014 exhibition, just as the makeshift veiling of those photographs in which she appears might be read as a tactful response on the part of Nihaal, his grandmother, and mother to Kulsum’s arguably dogmatic stance. Instead of a coherent record or definitive representation, in place of a contract, Haleema’s photography, more generally, comes to be the playfulness, shyness, boldness, happiness, melancholy, anger, anxiousness and/or weariness of leaning into the image, of becoming the image, and of beholding and preserving the image. It is these sorts of feelings and doings that drive Haleema’s photography as it moves between albums and screens, Cochin and London, the 1950s and now, that make it a little and living history worth dwelling on.
Mallika Leuzinger is a PhD candidate in the History of Art department at University College London. She researches photographic practices and their afterlives in South Asia, tracing a history of how the camera made its way into the postcolonial household.
See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (translated by Rela Mazali and Ruvik Danieli), New York: Zone Books, 2008; and Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (translated by Louise Bethlehem), London: Verso, 2012.
Nihaal Faizal, “130 — My Great-Grandmother, the Incredible Photographer,” Indian Memory Project, first published 2014, http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/tag/haleema-hashim (accessed 17 May 2016). My research focuses particularly on women’s engagements with photography. As Siddhartha Ghosh and Sabeena Gadihoke have shown, with the increased global availability and popularity of the handheld, film-roll camera in the early twentieth century, not least due to Kodak’s gendered advertising strategies, several Indian women from different religious and cultural, if generally elite, backgrounds took up photography. See Siddhartha Ghosh, “Zenana Studio: Early Women Photographers of Bengal,” from Taking Pictures: The Practice of Photography by Bengalis (trans.) Debjani Sengupta, in Trans Asia Photography Review vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 2014, np., http://hdl.handle.net//spo.7977573.0004.202 (accessed May 20, 2019); and Sabeena Gadihoke, “The Home and Beyond: Domestic and Amateur Photography by Women in India (1930–1960),” in Sarai Reader: Shaping Technologies, 2003, pp. 61–69, http://archive.sarai.net/files/original/ed793cb1e28c39e9081fc479ff7545f8.pdf (accessed May 20, 2019).
For a brief sketch of the Kutchi Memon community in Kerala, see K. A. Martin, “Kutchi Memons go a long way back,” in The Hindu, 25 July 2008, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/kutchi-memons-go-a-long-way-back/article1301577.ece (accessed May 20, 2019). Very little English scholarship exists on the Kutchi Memon community. See Asghar Ali Engineer, ed., “Memons,” in Islamic Perspective: A Biannual Journal. A special issue on Bohras, Khojas and Memons, vol. 1 (January 1988), 41–48,
http://www.memon.freeservers.com/originmemon1.htm; Mohamed Taher, “Memon Community’s Composition,” http://www.memon.freeservers.com/originmemon.htm (all accessed 10 July 2017). See also Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, “Islamism and Social Reform in Kerala, South India,” in Modern Asian Studies Vol. 42, No. 2/3 (2008), 317–46. Caroline Osella, “Desires under Reform: Contemporary Reconfigurations of Family, Marriage, Love and Gendering in a Transnational South Indian Matrilineal Muslim Community,” in Culture and Religion Vol. 13, No. 2 (2012), 241–64. For an overview of the philanthropic orientations of middle- and upper-class Muslim business families, see Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, “Muslim Entrepreneurs in Public Life between India and the Gulf: Making Good and Doing Good,” in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute Vol. 15 (2009), 202–21.
Steve Walton, “Agfa Isolette III: Agfa Isolette III Description and User Report,” n.d., https://www.uklandscapephotographer.com/agfa-isolette-iii/ (accessed 18 May 2019). See also Mike Elek, “Agfa Isolette III,” 8 February 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3NMTwVTXYQ (accessed 18 May 2019).
W. D. Emanuel, Yashica Twin Lens Reflex Guide. London and New York: The Focal Press, 1964, http://www.3106.net/photo/cam1045.htm (accessed 18 May 2019).
All of the Kutchi households I visited practice aniconism in the sense that they interpret the open display of images of humans and animals as haram. The only pictures displayed on the walls are of floral or geometric designs; all photographs are kept in albums or envelopes and boxes in cupboards, although these were always easily accessible and given pride of place in the living room.
Here, I refer to Walter Benjamin’s use of the term when he wrote: “Despite all the skill of the photographer and all the good planning in the pose of his model, the viewer feels irresistibly compelled to seek out the tiniest spark of concurrence, a here and now, in such an image, with which actuality has seared, so to speak, the characters in the image.” See Walter Benjamin, On Photography, ed. E. Leslie (London: Reaktion Books, 2015), 66.
Tasneem explained that the Peeti was made by Memon women and consisted of “sandalwood, lots of herbs and roots — ayurvedic roots. All of it is mashed together and made into a paste. Also wild turmeric (kasthuri manjal). It’s an herbal turmeric used for facials. It’s not the one used for cooking. So this one is good for the skin. It makes it smooth. So this with rosewater, almonds, oil, all mixed into it.” Tasneem Arif, interview conducted on my behalf, transcribed and translated from the Kutchi by Nihaal Faizal, Ernakulam, 9 January 2019.
Before the Nikah, the bride was bathed in another herbal mixture called Kosadi, made of roots and herbs: “All of this is beaten together and put into a cloth that’s wrapped tight and soaked in water, like a spice bag. There would be a special container for this. This process begins the day before the wedding. Water is boiled and the spice bag is soaked in the hot water. This is then sealed and stored for use the next day. It’s not heated again, but used as is, the next day. It stays slightly warm. So after the normal bath, the bride bathes in this.” Tasneem Arif, 2019.
This meal was called the Seerani because of the Seero (semolina halwa) that was served as dessert. Naan and mutton gravy that had been cooked by the families themselves was served, and unlike weddings now, there were no welcome drinks or starters. Cigarettes, chai, and beeda (betel nut that is chewed) were distributed to the men, with Tasneem knowing of only one woman who smoked cigarettes at all. Tasneem Arif, 2019.
For a study of wedding photography in Kerala that focuses on the late 1990s and early 2000s but makes several relevant observations about the social import this photography took, see Janaki Abraham, 2010. “Wedding Videos in North Kerala: Technologies, Rituals, and Ideas about Love and Conjugality,” in Visual Anthropology Review 26(2), 116–27.
Ibid., 36. Given the strong intimacy of Haleema’s photography, it is significant that “tact” figures in Jacques Derrida’s understandings of the concept: “for intimacy (with the friend, the lover) requires a certain distance and incalculable measurements of tact.” See Thomas Dutoit, “From Esthetics of Intimacy to Anesthetics in Extimacy: The Examples of Jacques Derrida,” in L’Esprit Créateu, 44(1), 2004, 17.