Malavika Karlekar. (Pabitra Das)
Photographs became an eloquent link between the private and the public as Malavika Karlekar turned back the clock at a Bengal Club Library Talk, in association with The Telegraph on Monday evening.
Calcutta University vice-chancellor Suranjan Das chaired the programme and introduced Karlekar, a consultant for the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi and the project director of the photo archives on women at the centre, as “a pioneer in utilising photographs for reconstructing India’s past”.
“Indians started going to the studios only around the 1870s. The photographs do more than merely sit in mantelpieces and family albums. They tell us about the lifestyles, sartorial details as well as introduce us to the notion of the conjugal family,” said Karlekar.
She showed six images of Bengali couples from 1880s to the end of the 1940s as visual evidence of how perception of photographs changed.
The journey started with an 1883 photograph of Rabindranath Tagore and his 10-year-old bride, possibly clicked at Bourne & Shepherd. The next exhibit was a photograph of Sahayram Bose and his eight-year-old bride. “The two photographs give you an idea of not just what it was like to be married and photographed during that time but also how families wanted to project the young couples. In many cases, the studio was the first public space where a young girl was brought out in a carriage to be photographed,” said Karlekar.
Photographers often gave detailed instructions to their subjects. A doctor would have his stethoscope showing from a jacket pocket and a lawyer would hold a book in his hand. “Raja Deen Dayal, who went on to become the Nizam’s photographer, had an entire book of things to be kept ready when somebody came to be photographed, including clamps for the head and legs since the entire session of being photographed could take two to four hours!” said Karlekar.
According to her, these were the first steps towards bringing the private into the public space via the photo studio, “where incidentally in a deeply, racially and hierarchically divided society, the rulers shared the same space with the middle class”.
“The studio became a subtle indicator that the same physical space could be shared between the rulers and the ruled,” said Karlekar before taking a “leap in time and space” into the life of Kalpana Datta Joshi of the Chittagong armoury raid.
Little known, little seen photographs of Kalpana, sourced from her family, had the audience hooked.
“Historians, sociologists and people who research into the family are always curious to know about what exactly went on within the family. When we look at our family albums, we should remember that the photographs don’t just help us to commemorate our parents and grandparents but also give us a long history of families and how women’s attitude changed,” said Karlekar.