Archives and Origins: the Material and Vernacular Cultures of Photography in India

Read more of my piece published in Trans Asia Photography Review


The number of doctors I have seen in the past two weeks since the health crisis that landed me in ER.


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A slice of the photo album page of a first cousin on my other FB account (reserved for extended family). He’s from Benares which is also my birth place where my late maternal grandfather, originally from Swamimalai, Tamil Nadu, was a prominent Vedic scholar all his life – Vishwanatha Shastri from Hanuman Ghat. I have not seen this cousin since childhood and he still lives in my grandfather’s house. I have fond memories as a 7 or 8 year old, of a palatial but modestly furnished house with many rooms, filled with Hindu pilgrims who came to Benares for all kinds of ceremonies; a granary full of sacks and sacks of rice and other grains; exciting visits to the ghat for bathing in the river; a kitchen where my grandmother and aunts cooked over the fire in big pots for a large family – very large when everyone was visiting, which meant my grandparents, their 4 sons and 5 daughters and about 50 grandchildren; cows right outside on the cobble-stoned गली that would arch their heads back to have their dewlaps petted; the fresh smell of grass and cow dung, which smelled more like grass than cow dung; the regular visits of a snake charmer who would let us, the children, hold the snake and its little slithering snakelet offspring in our hands in exchange for two cups of rice in payment; really delicious Banarasi kachori; a bazaar where I remember being fascinated by little toy boats – pop pop boats – that would go round and round on buckets of water, propelled by vegetable oil burners; kite-flying on the terrace; older female cousins who mysteriously spent a number of days isolated from the rest of the family in a room upstairs in the terrace every now and then; elaborate stagings of the Rasa Lila by all of the children, choreographed by the older ones among them, with elaborate costumes, for the elders; and a neighboring wealthy UP family whose wealthy sons would come back home past midnight tottering down the road very drunk, very naked and shouting obscenities, the children among us rushed back inside so we couldn’t stare down from the verandah, my older female cousins back on to the verandah in no time to watch and giggle.

That past seems distant now but unlikely things can trigger elaborate memories. In this case, my cousin is a staunch भाजपा supporter, whose FB posts are long Hindi screeds – and jokes – targeting Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi. Can you tell? The screen-capture’s combination of masculine bravado, religious iconography, icons of neo-liberal lifestyles, post-photoshop internet erotica, and a distinct brand of homilies for everyday life that ought to be termed “Facebook Values” (why not? We already have Hallmark Holidays).


It’s been genuinely nice to actually have a good laugh with a parent over the personality quirks, character flaws, shared/inherited traits we both wish we could desperately lose. And moving to hear him advice me to start working on losing them now because no one advised him when he was my age.



The weather this time of the year in Trivandrum makes me want to move here permanently. Almost no humidity, wonderfully cool breeze at night through the windows – no a/c in my dad’s house, only fans- and sheets and sheets of hard driving rain – sometimes deafening – as part of the Southwest monsoon season that began in mid-June, also called Edavapathy in Malayalam. Edavam is the month in the Malayalam calendar for June, and “pathy” in Malayalam as well as Tamil, means half, or middle.

Life here is still leisurely in pace. Trivandrum is the capital of the state of Kerala and as such has a vast population of middle-class government employees, and is not yet as intensely subject  to the upwardly mobile consumerism and attendant youth-fetishizing lifestyles as in many other Indian towns. Bars, pubs, coffee shops, are still relatively few in this town. I know of only one coffee shop, located in the most upmarket part of town – Kowdiar.

All this is quite unlike Eranakulam, or Cochin, another major town in Kerala where I spent a lot of my childhood summers during brief holidays from boarding school, that’s now bursting at the seams, is very cosmopolitan and diverse in its population and entirely immersed in the breathless consumerism of urban India. This is not recent – even in the 1980s, Eranakulam was more exciting to live in; its main thoroughfare, Broadway (M.K Gandhi road) filled with shops and restaurants. A city by the sea with limited room for expansion, Eranakulam is now unlivable by all accounts, in the same way that many other cities are in India.

In Trivandrum by contrast, things shut down by 9 pm. I find living here a welcome mode of decompression, reprieve, escape from the anxieties, pathologies, dysfunction, and lopsidedness of life in the United States. It helps to have a parent whose life is sedate and thankfully not subject to medical emergencies as frequently as in the past: a lot of sleeping during the day, a slow and leisurely visit to the local temples in the evening, and then bedtime. Boredom seems less and less an issue for me as I get older – and at any rate, there’s plenty of reading and writing to be done for which this town seems well-suited. The all-vegetarian, all-South Indian diet can get tiresome after a while. But I’ve found places to sneak to for kababs and beer in the evening once in a while.

On the other hand,  this town is strongly patriarchal in culture. My male relatives are all alpha-males, used to having their way at home and work. They are ignorant of any conception of a liberal arts education and therefore more contemptuous than not of careers in the humanities which are seen as self-indulgent and wasteful. But they too seem to be coming around, as their children – my nieces mostly, opt for PhDs, delayed marriages, and careers prioritized over becoming parents. Helping some of them with their grad school applications has made their parents, my cousins, more appreciative of knowing someone in academia. Kill’em with kindness, I say. It pays off. My sister and I are only the second and third PhDs – and the first in fields like nutrition and film studies – after a late cousin who got her PhD in the 1970s in engineering (and was therefore a pioneer as well).

This town is also very strongly monolingual in everyday life –  even the doctors in the world-class hospitals in this town – refuse to speak in English even if they know it; even fewer do in Hindi, and almost all converse in Malayalam. That’s even more true if you go to open a phone line or call to complain of slow internet speeds. Not knowing the language can be a hassle and while I can get by in it, my sister finds it infuriating and frustrating. The mostly male doctors here prefer to talk to my father about his health – in Malayalam – even when she accompanies him to doctors’ visits, so you can imagine the entirely un-self-consious chauvinism of everyday life here. Her gender, my line of work and the fact that both my sister and I have  opted not to have children place us outside the norms. One cousin berated my father for allowing us, his children, “to ruin our lives” by not starting families. Interestingly, since my sister is in the sciences, she gets more respect in some quarters than I can command. I on the other hand, get the same relatives making the same comments each time – but what is the practical value of film studies?

Since I’m the male child, my absence for most of the year is judged more harshly since the expectation is that sons look after parents, not daughters (who are generally married off). That judgment in turn ensures that my sister’s visits here are seen as proof positive of a daughter who is responsible and caring given the son’s abdication of his fundamental duties.  So we both have things to be annoyed about here.

Both the daughters of one of my cousins are now abroad – one eager to settle down in Australia where her husband works, so she can pursue a doctoral degree in the dental sciences, the other in Singapore pursuing a doctoral degree in mechanical engineering. The one in Australia is married and has not had a child even though three years have passed now since her marriage – a highly unusual and for her parents, concerning state of affairs. For a brief period, her husband was unemployed, causing much heartbreak and embarrassment. I don’t feel motivated to gloat, as I perhaps could, given that these departures from the norms have gradually made things easier for me.

For those not used to intensely closely-knit extended families with unavoidable interactions with relatives every single day, all this may seem distant. But for me, visiting this world is to also visit and be visited upon by, its norms and expectations.

L.N. Tallur


L.N. Tallur

Made in England – A Temple Designed for India, 2001/2002.

Polyvinyl Acetate Coated Fabric, blowers; 600 x 300 x300 cm. Collection of the artist.

Extract from L.N. Tallur’s artist’s statement:

“As part of the cultural exchange, I am planning to design the RIGHT BODY TO RIGHT HEAD, quiz programme for museum visitors in Britain. My inspiration is the broken heads of Indian sculptures in British museums. The bodies that belong to these heads are in India!

As an exotic Indian, as usual, I have designed a temple in The United Kingdom. It is for the Indian market, designed with a thorough knowledge of modern Indian requirements. It is mobile, inflatable, handy and bright in colour, looks like contemporary art too.”

“L.N. Tallur”. 2005. Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India. London: Philip Wilson Publishers.


I posted the following on a social networking site but it seems worthwhile to post it here as well. I now regret not carrying a notebook to the screening but these are things I remembered – with all attendant misrepresentations and inaccuracies – that I jotted down as soon as I got back:

“Hi all, I’m a professor of Bollywood. I’ve written and published a lot of pieces on Bollywood. Some of you may know that Bollywood is now 100 years old. Woo hoo! Bollywood is a portmanteau of Bombay and Hollywood. This movie has great historical value. It shows that Bollywood singing and dancing goes a long way back. Enjoy the movie.”

Those, in effect, were all the points made today, in a brief introduction by someone – not me! – introducing Uday Shankar’s Kalpana (1948), at SIFF: an absolutely phenomenal, enchanting 2 hours and 40 minutes, with a frame narrative of a guy pitching the main story to a film producer, about an artist struggling to create an art school (the story is rejected by the producer and the movie ends on a note of despair). The movie was surprising for a variety of reasons. I didn’t know it was multilingual- Bengali and Malayalam were among the first languages for the spoken dialogue in the movie. I wasn’t prepared for the movie’s Kismet (1943) style engagement with nationalism, albeit much more sustained than Kismet and much more critical (incorporating Gandhi and Nehru at one point as empty words by sloganeering-politicians). Nor for its extended sequence of the deadening effects of factory labor reminiscent of Metropolis. Or its light and lively satire. In one scene, a group of Maharajas watch Uday Shankar’s extended ballet while a member of the theater monitors a tall barometer that measures their responses: enchanting, sex appeal, boring, so-so. In another, a character explains that the reason a dance troupe is mistaken by a character as African (in fact it’s a Naga dance) is because of Hollywood’s pernicious construction of the non-West. Then there’s its economy of expression – one of the last shots of the film, when we return to the frame narrative, is an overhead static shot of a street that indicates just enough of urban life with the movement on the edges of the frame of people, bicycles, a black car, and a street seller of food on a cart. There’s the rhythm of dance and editing that followed the movie’s themes: split-screens, dissolves, super-impositions for the dream and fantasy sequences, breathless montage for many of the movie’s most powerful critiques of modernity, and a combination of long shots, overhead shots and close-ups for the more obviously diegetic performances of the dance sequences (including a drum scene that anticipates Chandralekha). The last hour or so of the movie was a sequence of dances – Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Naga, Bhangra, and you can also see traces and/or variations of the cultural politics of post-independence India as the movie tries to craft an understanding of the popular that excludes itself. Perhaps most thrilling was the movie’s ability to completely blur the backstage drama into the dance performances till the events of the plot and the dances performed in that world, continue each other’s functions, till we can’t tell if an interaction is happening on stage or off-stage.