October 25, 2013

Still Lives: Photography Compositions

I have lately acquired two new great loves: baking and still-life compositions. Both require exacting degrees of preciseness, leaving little space for improvisation or dramatic last-minute innovation unless you are sufficiently skilled in the technique to do so. Too little moisture or one more object…the finished product becomes cracked or cluttered. 

 And when everything is perfectly calibrated - taste, texture - it feels…right.

A Leaf in a River

If memory is a river, I continuously cross back and forth to recline upon the banks of nostalgia; these banks are called Oman and Rajasthan and wherever I sit, the river flows...and flows...the leaf simply following the currents.

Walk Treasures
Wherever I walk, I can’t stop myself collecting and preserving the richness I encounter on the ground below: feathers, pebbles, shells, flowers, and leaves. Here are my pickings from my recent walks, reflecting the season falling around me. The only exception is the crimson baby tomato, which I woke up one morning to find sitting exactly where my apartment balcony and air meet. For a while, I reveled in the mystery of this unexpected guest; then, I looked up only to find my neighbor growing tomato plants in the balcony above. What is preferable: the suspense of mystery or relief of mundane knowing-ness? Still pondering…

Fragile Dreams
We all have our - multiple, varied -  dreams tucked away in the secret diaries of our mind… Years later, paging through them, they tumble out, these dessicated, beautiful things, which will threaten to turn into dust at the merest touch.

The Sole Truths of Fashion

A snapshot of my mind: i) reading fashion memoirs - Justine Picardie’s My Mothers Wedding Dress and which I highly recommend and b) visual junkie fix: fashion magazines c) writing about fashion and last but certainly not the least d) shoes carted away all the way from Oman, soul-fix for the feet

October 22, 2013

Of Ghost Clothes and Photographs

Portrait of a Dress (2013)

"Do clothes have ghosts, or do ghosts have clothes? There's no evidence one way or the other, as you might expect: but there are stories, some of which survive long after their telling."

-Ghost Dresses, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes, Justine Picardie (2006).

I have talked about what clothes represent and signify to me here and as time goes by, my interest in notion of clothes being personal narratives and how they function as markers of different cultures, eras, and societies has further deepened. Of late, I have been on the hunt for compelling fashion writing and so I was pleased to discover Justine Picardie's memoir, My Mother's Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes. A collection of poetic, beautifully written essays about how fashion (in form of specific items of clothing, literature, and fashion designers) has shaped the author's life, there was one particular essay which particularly intrigued me, Ghost Dresses and whose opening lines I have quoted above. 

It struck me that one of the reasons why I so enjoy looking at vintage photographs of people is to study the clothing/fashions that they are wearing. A few years ago, Scott Schulman had a feature on his blog, The Sartorialist in which he posted and mused about photographs he had found in a box at Chelsea Flea Market; he subsequently invited readers to submit vintage images of their family and friends - and these contributions were portraits in every sense of the word, the clothes bestowing clues about the subjects' quirks, preferences - and indeed, visually encapsulating very much of who they were exactly at that moment. Another incredible resource which I love returning to is Anusha Yadav's Indian Memory Project, which is dedicated to documenting Indian subcontinent's visual and oral history via family archives; as you browse through the images and read the accompanying stories, you will often observe contributors making references to the clothing the subject wears as much as a means of identifying the era in which they were photographed as well as how it enriches the understanding of the subjects and their stories. 

Group portrait of Rajasthani women and children, c.1920 (courtesy Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces II)

Lady at Toilette, c.1910 (courtesy: Tasveer Journal's exhibition, Subjects and Spaces I)

The Indian online photography magazine, Tasveer recently published its series, Subjects and Spaces, which dealt with the representation of women in Indian photography between 1850-1950. These two pictures are amongst the many which reflect the conjunction of photography in colonial and newly independent India and the role and presentation of Indian women in that time period. Whether its individual or group portraits, the exhibition gives fascinating insight as to what it meant to be photographed for the women and alternately, how it was to photograph them; whether it is noting the minutiae of the background details or how they posed and with whom or the garments, the underlying subtexts of the photographs are laden with stories.

Dancing, c.1872
I would like to share a story, which is an intersection of vintage photography, fashion, and ghost clothes. Three years ago, I bought a vintage photograph of two (presumably) aristocratic Rajasthani women from a Jodhpur antique store. I browsed through stacks of photographs before finally deciding upon a hand-tinted one of two smiling women posing next to a decorative pillar; they were dressed in lengha-choli, their heads covered. Clearly not just content with introducing color into the women's monochrome lives, the artist also limned their jewelry with glitter, blurring the line between painting and image. I remember thinking that the combination of the image being hand-tinted and vintage meant that the women looked as if they had been photographed underwater. 

I had the photograph framed and packed it in a nest of scraps of old cloth and newspaper and carted it off to Oman; after spending quite some time deciding where to place the photograph in my room, alternating between my desk or my dressing table, I eventually propped it above the rectangular mirror. Whenever I was writing at my desk, I would absently glance at the photograph and eventually, I thought of building a long novella or short novel around these anonymous women: who were they: mother and daughter, posing for a special occasion? Where were they posing and had they worn their special-occasion outfits? How did they feel about posing for a photograph? Had they been in purdah? If so, were they happy to be seen and not invisible, for once? I visualised the photograph being part of the book-jacket, reminiscing in the afterword about it being the visual and direct inspiration for the book.

As weeks passed, I could not pinpoint as to why I started to feel uneasy whenever I looked at the photograph; in turn, I felt that the smiles on the women's faces were less pronounced, conveying a discernible lack of cheer. Even though I valiantly attempted to construct a story around them, it was as if the women in the photograph resisted being written into the narrative.

I eventually decided that I could no longer have the photograph in my room; it was as if neither the women nor I were at peace and we should part ways. I could not bring myself to summarily dispose it in the trash so I decided to consign them to the sea instead. When I went to the beach, I gently placed them in the lap of the sea and prayed for their well-being. Why I did so, I do not know: both the prayers or the act of donating them to the ocean. All I knew that was I stood there and watched them float away in the sea until they gradually disappeared out of my sight.

Do clothes have ghosts, or ghosts have clothes? Some questions will be unanswered...

October 9, 2013

Photo-Essay: Where are you from?

Pittsburgh, United States: A Shell in a Pebble Desert
 Sometimes, I feel like this shell above.

Of late, I have found myself taking a while to aptly respond to the seemingly innocuous question: Where are you from? I can rattle off the bald facts in a jiffy: passport: Indian, born in Australia, raised in and called Oman home for many years, studied in UK in between, and presently living in United States. Yet, these are merely facts: they do not and cannot convey the various homes that I simultaneously belong to and inhabit inside my head. So much so that when I am feeling homesick, I do not know which one particular home it is that I am exactly yearning for; all I know is that I feel groggy, disoriented, as if permanently travelling through assorted time zones. It must be a bit like what this shell landwrecked in a pebble desert in a city of three rivers must feel like at times: dreaming of the sea, waking up instead to the bare, varnished smell of rock and river.

Jodhpur, India: Parallel Lines

Sometimes, I miss sitting cross-legged on a sunlight-warmed sandstone balustrade outside a temple in the nook of a hill and looking down at a pale blue city spread out below.

When I walk through its narrow, labyrinthine streets and look up at the blue - exactly the shade of the sky just before it dissolves into night from day - I am pierced by a peculiar and exact sense of belonging. Behind each of those shuttered doors, there is a story, a person, a smile, a mystery. I want to open all those windows and parachute myself into their lives. However, the truth is that their stories are being birthed in the chaos cluttering the streets below. They sinew into form in the noise (barber-salon chatter, tailor gossip, and street debate), smell of frying kachoris and samosas and jalebis (served from the scalding oil in bowls of newspaper, the grease speckling the surface gray), totems of fruit in fruit-juice stalls, rainbows bottled in fabric and sari shops, and my favorites: the fancily-named Fancy stores, where you can dress up your wrists and hair and hands. I walk below the eaves, observing and remembering and photographing, carefully planting the stories inside my head, a squirrel squirreling food away in preparation for the long winter hibernation ahead. 

Seeb, Oman: Lonesome

Sometimes, I will walk past an abandoned sofa sitting outside its former house - and be reminded of its many siblings whom I have similarly encountered in the different places that I call home.

A sun-bleached, paint-stained sofa, which once held pride of court inside a fisherman's house in Seeb, will connect me to a long, floppy couch adorning a Pittsburgh's student room that I spotted in an inky alleyway one plangent June night. How easily do you find yourself calling a new place your home though, you think, a place that months before had been a mere name in your head, bereft of any associations - and now, when you see the name, Pittsburgh, it is already studded with markers of memories. A sofa = memory bridge: moments which tell you that perhaps you can be in two places at once.  

London, United Kingdom: Neatly Stacked

Sometimes, I am the person outside, looking inside; sometimes, I am inside, looking outside.

Does the inside become the outside/the outside metamorphosing into the inside? I have stopped thinking about from where I am looking; perhaps, it does not even matter as to where I am standing upon either. In my head, home, or rather, homes, have become akin to a set of revolving doors: simply step out and see what lies ahead when and where it opens for you.


I have told you where I am from. Where are you from?