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Photographic Praxis in India


Malavika Karlekar

NONY SINGH: THE ARCHIVIST
Text by Sabeena Gadihoke and Aveek Sen
Dreamvilla Publications, 2013, pp. 114, Rs. 1500.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 3 March 2014

When, almost fifty years after the first daguerreotype arrived in Europe, George Eastman invented the small ‘brownie’ camera, he brought photography into homes worldwide. Indian photographic aficionados were not far behind their western counterparts, though initially photography was an elite preoccupation. Soon, Kodak advertisements that used women as models were validating a slowly growing tradition of the woman with a camera. In India, as early as the 1880s, a ‘Sreemuttee Sarojini Ghosh’ ran a studio in Calcutta to photograph women in parda, a trend that was to pick up steam by the early decades of the 20th century. Thus, when 7-year-old Nony Singh used her father’s camera to photograph her mother on a family picnic, some might have thought of her as a precocious child; but, by the 1940s while a child handling a camera was rare, cameras in middle and upper middle- class homes were by no means unusual.   Nony’s early use of her father’s camera soon grew into an obsession. ‘Reared in the frugality and restraint of analogue photography’ (Sen), she soon became a meticulous photographer. When Nony got married at the age of twenty two, her father-in-law gifted his Zeiss Ikon camera to her. In pre-Partition India, Nony had no problem in visiting her parents’ friends’ homes—her only question was, would they have albums which she could look at? On the rare occasion that she and her sisters made it to the cinema hall, she would observe the poses, costumes and other details of the actors. These were later utilized to memorialize family members—sister Guddie in a Sophia Loren-like pose, three-quarter positioning of aunts with saris carefully arranged, melancholic heroines in anguish and so on. The elegant little volume showcases many such poses.   Growing up in an age when fancy dress parties were quite the rage, Nony Singh managed to photograph her four daughters in a range of costumes and roles. Her oldest, Dayanita, was asked to pose as a queen, a Maharashtrian belle, a Kashmiri beauty and as Mother Mary. School buses, taxis and even people had to wait while the mother got just the right position and gesture from her daughters—the most reluctant being Dayanita. With only twelve exposures, frugality was the order of the day and focus had to be manually worked out with the formula ‘two steps forward and three steps back. If you made a mistake, ...


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