The first Phalke Book.
April 30, in the dark of 8.30 pm, I was born to a kathavachak's family in Trymbakeshvar. My name was to be Dhundiraj Govind Phalke.
Saraswati : The crumpled skin of the newborn was pinko grey as the skin of a baby dhundi- elephant.
It was hoped he would grow up to have the dark allure of Govind.
If you looked deep into the glass marbles of his eyes, you could see dancing reflections of fresh banana fronds: Phalke.
Dada: Those jewel like irises of the eyes are a family inheritance.. they were nesting behind the eyelids of the fourteen foreigners who were washed ashore at the foot of the Sahyadris.
This was a long time ago, when the feet of that ancient mountain were tickled by the young waters.
Parsuram, the embodiment of rage, came upon these bodies. He had let himself kill so many Kshtriyas, he had let so much blood, that his co Brahmans refused to do any rites for him. He then came upon the remains of our ancestors: I say 'remains' because they were dead of an accident at sea and it was the sea waves who had naively brought them to shore, to show them off like her booty, to the Sahyadris.
Parsuram cremated them, letting the fire wash their bodies, and ready them for change. Then he made them come alive again, taught them the scriptures and made brahmans out of them, brahmans who would serve him.
Sarasvatibai( to herself) : Such can be the stubborness of the extremely self righteous.
Dada: He forced the sea to yield up a stretch of land, on either side of the river Vashishthi, for them.
That is how we came to be Chitpavan Konkanast Brahmans.
Saraswati: The mountain lost the companionship of the sea, and grew old in her memory.
When you were born, we performed the same rites as when your father was born. I was made to lie on my back, as your Ajji lay once. A brahman untied the knots in the house, echoing your movements in my womb, where you were loosening yourself from the coiled mattresses that kept you in my waters. My waters broke loose and like a young turtle suddenly let into the deep, you swam your way out. He must have been small in there, like you were small, like the soft, fresh walnut kernel if you broke open the shell.
I have often wondered, why shadows move me. The shadows of the cinema.If you stand close to the screen you see what makes those shadows- the dust that our lives are made of, a fine grained mist that cannot hurt us
By 1870, in Europe, limelight was replacing the use of oil lamps for light in magic lantern projectors. Limelight was more combustile, but it also shone brighter, more steadily, for longer. It was produced by burning oxygen and hydrogen on a pellet of lime.
The Book of a history of different screens.
The Artist and the artisan
" A root is a flower that hates to be famous" Soicot
Diwan Madhav Rao watches his protegee.
The 22 year old painter is still working on the canvas of his first commission, a portrait of a upper class nuclear family from Trivandrum. The group of five are looking back at the painter. The woman is all clothes, and a small face. The young Ravi Varma has spent the time reserved for her carefully delineating the folds of her clothes. The littlest boy is pushing himself further into his mother's lap. The other two boys stand between their parents, staring at the painter.
Ravi Varma's eye shies before the eye of the patriarch- the dark skinned, bearded man, the head of the Khizakkepat Palat Family sits before him, least innocent in the group that he is part of, most tired, most knowing. His gaze seems to consider the painter standing before him. Ravi Varma has spent a large time trying to 'capture' that which arrests him about this man, and failing. That vitally alive being, that expanse of brown skin remain frustratingly outside the grasp of his brush. What he paints is flat brown canvas, nothing compared to the contoured body that sits before him, just beyond that canvas. Ravi Varma is confining himself to that which he knows better- the ornamentation he has learnt from his uncle. He deftly paints a single pearl in the patriarch's ears, and is reassured by the perfect gleam. Extending his confidence in painting pearl whites, he carefully works on the patriarch's mother of pearl eyes on which, like inlay work, sit those dark, shining irises, crowned with the darkest gem of the pupil.
Like a speaking necklace on the neck of a woman, those eyes are suddenly his, Ravi Varma's, on his canvas. The portrait comes alive. More confidently now, the young man paints, and soon, the middle child's irises show the fear of a little animal that is caught, the oldest one's are opened up like the startled doe of Shakuntala(the painter likes that). And the woman's face, guileless as a child, her gaze blinder than everyone else's as she faces the painter. The gaze of a creature dulled by her unexpected exit from the confines of her routines, into this sunlight, facing a young good looking man, being asked to be still sitting around her family.
If Ravi Varma's own family were to be painted, a group of musicians would come alive- a poet for a mother, a painter for an uncle, a sibling immersed in music, the other two showing promise at painting.
Ravi Varma faces the frustration of working his way through the opacity of canvas, seeing it wither under his paint sometimes, willing it to come alive.
Popularity of Kalighat paintings at its peak
The print lay in the back of the painter's hut, in pride of place. He admired it, without wanting to, and felt derisory without wanting to either. Kali striding through a world of darkness, on rampage, looking towards some prey inside that world.
When his dazzled jealousy subsided enough to enable him to look closely, Chandi noticed the pursed lips in the lines, a kind of mendicancy of making. Those small, careful strokes compensated for by the profusion of colours. The colours did not stand out, it seemed like the machines they came from had a way of sinking them INTO the paper, they became the picture. His own Kali, he thought, was a single line. Continuous as a human hair was the stroke of the hair brush that made it. That was the way with their paintings.
Chandi lived in the byelanes behind Kalighat temple. The Kali had been gifted to him, right there, in the lane where all of them sat and worked, by this oddball character, dweller of a large mansion on the other side of the town, who would come this way often, for his riverine adventure. He would stay for long stretches with a woman in the area, secure in the knowledge of that mansion waiting for him like the original faithful wife, containing within a small shell of a woman who was that wife.
The devi was looking away in anger. Her fury showed like he had never shown her.. That look troubled Chandi.. "she never looks thus when she looks at you, not in the many idols that make white shadows of the lanes that crowd around the Kali temple.. not in the temple either, does she ever look like this, not in their scrolls. She is somewhere else, in another land, somewhere far away from me. Not here, she is somewhere. "
Which wonderful machine had this ability to dream, he wondered, this too human apparition, inhuman dream, like on a long night of indigestion?
Book Three, in which are assorted various papers of Empire.
Colonel Longhand, Gwalior, 1857.
It has been a hard time since that cruel summer of 1857 when we lost many fine men and their innocent families to the perfidious intent of subjects who we had served, as well as we possibly good, in our sacred duty as rulers.
I have heard a retired general, a survivo of that time, tell me that that summer, like never before, I felt the malign character of this land, the dust storms that whips its giant Gangetic bowl, the millions of people like ants, crawling about in that bowl, but unlike those ants, with no sense of a whole, no disciplined serving out of a duty in a life time. Vermin: However we might try to temper our language with our own sense of decency, and the occasional sweetness of an encounter with some native serving in the cantonement, the truth must be faced, for better discharge of our own functions. In this strange country crawling with almost as many languages as seditious people, we are a small group of white men, who have to rule, we have to do it with utmost alertness, with all the superiority that technology can give to us.
We should only welcome then the great photographic project called "People of India", even if it feels like we are being made to dive into the sea, before we have even tested the waters thereof.
With this project has come into our orbit this winning galaxy of young stars called photographers. Often young officers on early deputations to this country, these young men have in the most, all displayed an outgoing personality and a single mindedness of purpose, which are, I believe, a result of the particular demands of their profession.
I am endeavouring here, undoubtedly not a little ignorantly, attempting to explain this mystifying thing called photography practised by these young men, because I believe it is essential that all of us who are working with some thought, in Her Majesty's Service, in the honeycombs of the barracks spread all over the country, should know something of this apparatus. Unfortunately, sometimes, the very age that gives us wisdom and seniority often keeps us blind to the the particular skills of the younger generation. I believe we cannot afford to do so any more, if the skills of these men are to be deployed in any way by us, if we believe we are indeed sincere in our services.
I have befriended to this end for a while, a young man, W. W. Hooper, who had come in on the 7th Madras Cavalry. He has very kindly tried to explain the workings of his machinery to this old fuddy called moi. I venture to explain therefore, hoping that my layman's language might enable the process of understanding. At most, I hope, where I do err, it will be forgiven as the enthusiasm of an unexperienced enthusiast.
Without further ado, the process
The photographer first clears a frame- empties it of all visible signs, often using a black cloth to shut out the obtruding landscape even, before he sets up his apparatus.
He plasters his wet plates on one wall of a Lilliputian dark room and in front of it, on a clamp, fixes the fan of an accordion.
The subject, who I might venture to ironically name 'a Seditious Possibility', or 'a Subversive Element' in the guise of man, is seated before this box that the natives call a 'camera', since it looks so much like its eponymous room, the native 'kamara'. (Indeed a distressing tendency has been noticed by the author among the men in the barracks to pick up such words from the native tongue and integrate them into the Queen's language. He hopes this piece might bring this distressing habit into relief and therefore help to stem it before it corrupts what is most surely our own,our language. )
The subject is seated before this mini room and asked to stare into its windows. As the subject sits quietly facing that glass, first entry into that darkness, something in him is stilled. The fiercest Gond warrior becomes tentative in that moment of gazing. The mini room then pulls an image of the subject into those dark interiors, where the wet plate is waiting for both, the image and the intrepid photographer.
The real battle takes place in that iodised darkness. The quicksilver image, evasive creature has to be trapped , fixed into that glass plate rapidly, delicately, with an unerring tackle, a rapid roll on the floor, where she tries, with that sly guile which is her truest nature, to escape in a sudden flurry of black dust that she tries to throw over everything. If she is able to do so, then it is all over, the battle of her capture is lost in a black dust of the nature of that same duststorm which choked everything in sight in those two months of May and June, in 1857.
It is not easy. The image is a slippery creature, not surprising when you think of who it is a exact reflection of- extremely slippery people. Ramoshis, Kolis, Santhals, Jats, Gujjars, long considered incapable of any civilised mediation, are slowly, incredibly being pinned down to these pieces of glass, and before long will enjoy the tranquil order that inhabits the botanists' shelves back home- where the Hibiscus rosa sinesus, the Rattus norvegicus, and the Rana Tigrina, co -exist, quiet and known, labelled, seperated, and file-ified in the generous bowers of our Majesty's laboratories. .
An enormous eye in the black sky pursues the criminal through space and to the bottom of the sea, where it devours him after taking the form of a fish. Multiple eyes nevertheless multiply under the waves.
The shadow of the Indian 'betrayal' of 1857 fuelled an increasing racism towards elite Indians, especially, in 'humorous' magazines of the British.
I'm holding my son in my arms/ sweating after nightmares/ small me/ fingers in his mouth/ his other fist clenched in my hair small me/ sweating after nightmares.