It’s circa 1920, Vani Subramanian’s paati (grandmother in Tamil) Lokanayaki and thatha (grandfather) R R Hariharan are sitting on separate wooden chairs. They are getting their photo taken, but probably don’t know how to pose. Hands folded on their lap, they look nervous. With her hair oiled and parted, paati is quite modern for 1920, with Mary Jane shoes and white socks that don’t go with her nine yard saree.
Thatha looks modern, clad in a jacket, slacks shoes and socks. They are long gone, but this tender moment, captured in a B&W photo is still alive as blog entry No 78, viewed by around 1,12,239 strangers.
The online photo blog, The Indian Memory Project, is an attempt to trace the history of India through a collection of personal photographs contributed by people from their family albums. Founded by Mumbai-based photographer Anusha Yadav in February 2010, it started as a collection on a social network for a book Anusha wanted to design on Indian weddings. Anusha says, “People from different backgrounds began posting old photos, along with interesting anecdotes. Everyone had a story, an accomplishment they wanted to share. That’s when I realised that there was more to these images than I had assumed.”
“These were our genealogies,” says Anusha. On the Memory Project, there are interesting entries of Raja Rameshwar Rao II of Wanaparthy, Hyderabad, posted by granddaughter Kamini Reddy from the US; a pre-partition wedding photo of Mr & Mrs H E Chowfin in Lahore; British officer Ronald Osbourne and his wife Beryl at Kohat Pass in 1946, posted by son John Reese from Australia. The list is never ending. The more you browse through the photos and read the endearing stories behind them, the more you feel like dusting off old albums on your own shelf.
A graduate of NID, Ahmedabad, Anusha worked as a graphic designer for 14 years. “I finally picked up the camera, after years of being coaxed. I was clear about capturing people and urban lives, documenting narratives about who they are. In 2010, I founded The Indian Memory Project,” says Anusha. She was inspired by the city of Jaipur, where old photos in living rooms were a common sight.
With no background in art history or anthropology, her keen interest in both urged her to pursue ‘time travel’ through old photos. “India’s available history is limited because recorded history favours political developments. Interestingly, it’s the human experience of emotions, actions and destinies, that offers a better insight into what our past really was. Family albums hold a treasure trove of information, astonishing secrets which, when revealed with personal narratives, become missing links to a nation’s emotional history,” says her blog.
“More people are migrating for work, leaving behind all evidence of familial identity and past,” she says.
Family stories are limited to random visits back home and nostalgic conversations. And yes, they are taken for granted. The worry is not so much about the current generation, as we still have heard stories and seen photoalbums, tucked away in our memory, but for the future. When you don’t have those images with you, what will you have to tell, show and educate your students and children? As I know it, there can’t be a future without a past,” Anusha says.
“India’s diversity is not well understood. We still understand Bollywood clichés, and seem to live in a bubble of our immediate needs and place, and believe that to be India. It’s much bigger, with more layers of difference and similarity than we can imagine. Tracing its history does not need an expert; it needs curiosity, patience to ask questions, funds and time,” she reasons. The Internet is the best platform for an idea like hers, she says “It provides cross-referenced information at a click, any time, anywhere. There’s no point in having such archives tucked away in ivory-tower institutions,” she adds.
The craze to trace history is a recent phenomenon. “I think capitalism and rich lifestyles have finally had a good consequence. It’s made people miss the simpler lives, rich histories and humane connections of the past. Our identities are getting lost,” she says.
This curatorial detective’s initiative is a novel attempt to involve Indians in a quest for their history, and together that of the country’s.
It wouldn’t be a surprise then, if someone finds out they’re related to a royal family, or Veerappan!