Celebrating Daughters! What Makes A Girl Child Special?

Just the other day when I finished reading Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita, I somehow felt immensely proud of Lolita, the protagonist. She, being a woman, better to say a female (and rather a proud one), dared enough to twist and mold the fate of a man, who was not only twice her age but also doubled her in his experience of life and in his maturity.

I surely cannot define the exact nature of my emotion toward Lolita, or why I felt so strongly about a girl and how she molded a man’s fate, but perhaps the seed lies in my own experience of growing up in a family where there was only two daughters. And by two daughters, I particularly mean, “No Sons.” Never in our lives we were made to feel undesirable by our parents, but whenever anyone enquired about my family, and I answered that we were two sisters only, I was immediately faced with the most hated question of “no brother at all?” This had always made me squirm with anger and frustration, and I had always wanted to answer back saying. “No, we don’t have one, do you have a problem?”

Why The Social Bias?

May be it is my inability, or maybe it is my upbringing, but I had always failed to understand what great deed a son can do for the society and for his parents that a daughter cannot. I also could not fathom why a child has to be demarcated as a girl child and a boy child, and not loved unconditionally. Recently,  I was shocked to hear that the quest for a male child is so much that even a woman in her 70s had put her health on stake and taken the help of artificial reproductive technology to have a male “heir,” despite having two grown up daughters!

A random check on how undesirable a girl child is can be very heart breaking. In India, the ridiculous desperation and the terrible yearning for a male child is reaching the level of abnormality. Foeticides and infanticides are well known, and the victims are always girls. Amidst all modernization and globalization, till today in the villages of India, and even in big cities sometimes, while the male child of the family is welcomed with the sound of conch shells and much rejoicing, their female counterparts are looked down with sympathy and sometimes even disgust and frustration.

 The Finger’s Upon Us

The roots of this age-old fondness for males over females in the family line is driven by a mixture of ethnic, social, religious, as well as economic conditions. Though the actual scenario has changed considerably in the present days, still the society expects sons to look after the parents in their old age. They are the ones who would take the family name forward and bring prosperity to the household. Daughters though referred to as the Laxmi of the house, is considered to be the one that will drain out the wealth and property by means of dowry.  A girl child is to brought up to be given away to another family to help carry on their family line, she is to be denied her ancestral property, and she is even to be denied her right of performing the last rites of her parents.

Is it worth being a girl even now in India?

Capturing Priceless Moments From Second Childhood: Photographing Elderly!

When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable.  Victor Hugo

A good photograph of an elderly person captures that grace, the experience, and the knowledge gained over the years, rather than just the wrinkles.    Photographing elderly people can seem like a challenge to the inexperienced photographer, but if he/she can go beyond what is obvious, can look beyond the wrinkles and sagging skin, and capture the very essence of the subject, the photographer will have created a work of art.

As Ken Rockwell says, “photography is the power of observation, not the application of technology.”  But how does one observe beyond the obvious, and capture the essence of a person.  Well, good ‘people photography’ is about getting to know your subject.  And that can be done only if you keep your camera down.

Top Tips for Photographing Elderly

Talk to your elderly subjects to make them comfortable, and do not forget to make accommodations for their special needs.  Talk to them about their lives, their youth, their family, and especially their grandchildren (if they have any).  Start clicking only when they are relaxed and chatting with you.  Try to capture some photojournalistic images of them interacting with their family, with their favourite possessions, or when they are talking, laughing or crying about their life experiences.  Do not make a big deal about the photography session itself, rather just shoot casually, so that they are relaxed, and your camera can capture an image of their eyes, their smile, and their profile.

Be Aware of Technicalities : Precision Is A Must

Do not neglect the technical aspect of photography either.  An understanding of lighting, its direction, quality and colour, will be your most important tool and vital asset.  The direction of the light will emphasize or conceal the lines and wrinkles of the skin. While side light which enhances texture, shape and form, can highlight the features, many subjects will not take too kindly to being portrayed with all the signs of age.  Back lighting that is reflected on the subject’s face with white reflectors, can capture a more flattering image.  On the other hand, natural lighting can often show the depth and dimension of the elderly person’s face, hands, lines and wrinkles, and can be less intimidating than the bigger equipments.

Setting and props are also important, especially if they show the subject in their natural environment.  If you are taking portraits of more than one person per photograph, remember to position everybody’s heads at different levels, and have them tilt their heads slightly towards one another.  Don’t position the hands with straight with open fingers, and if sitting, have them cross their ankles.  And remember, they do not have to smile to make good photographs.  And you can also use technology and photo-edit to soften the lines.

All Is Well That Ends Well!!

As photographer Philip Dunn says, “the older a person gets the more of their life story will be etched into their features – and this means that older people make natural and fascinating subjects for portraiture.   The sensitive photographer should be able to capture the essence of a person’s personality.”

…And It Flows Till Eternity

All rivers, even the most dazzling, those that catch the sun in their course, all rivers go down to the ocean and drown. And life awaits man as the sea awaits the river.
Simone Schwarz-Bart

Some Thoughts On Howrah Bridge

 

To a poet’s or a painter’s imagination, the Howrah Bridge stands as a bridge on troubled waters spreading its arms to home denizens of all culture. This colossal structure has witnessed the alternation of cultural, economic, and political color. In the midst of post-modern development and the passé of babu culture, the bridge sighs to embrace all. It is a kind of nurturing that Calcutta has enjoyed through its presence.

This mammoth body has, in fact, aided in giving an identity to the city. The city now cannot even be dreamt sans this historical structure. It was constructed to support the smooth commuting of vehicles from the primary railway terminus to the heart of the city’s commercial hub. The footpath of this connecting unit is a delight to a photographer. The stark mesh of colors, the different activities of people, and a number of vehicles is a treat to your eye. You will be able to find from lean poets to NRIs with their latest model of SLR cannon in the stretch of the bridge.

However, photography of the bridge is strictly prohibited now because of security reasons. Howrah Bridge is also known as Rabindra Setu. The construction of this bridge started in 1937 and it took almost seven years to be ready for usage. It was constructed by Rendel Palmer & Tritton and Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company. The estimated cost that was incurred for the construction of this bridge is about Rs. 333 crores.

The constructions of this bridge had a military significance too. It was built during World War II, so that the Allied troops could have an easy access to the Burmese front. This hanging bridge supports the weight of a daily traffic of more than a lakh of vehicles. This cantilever bridge has homed shootings of a number films that have won accolades, like Namesake and Yuva. This bridge symbolizes a sense of welcome as well as separation for the people who leave the city and come back to it again.

Howrah Bridge is related to the Bengali culture starting from the homecoming of goddess Durga to her immersion since long. The reflection of the shimmering lights at night on the river Hoogly is a visual delight, while taking a canoe ride. This jam packed bridge has also witnessed successes and losses of many people. It stood test of time during the burning of effigies and political demonstrations during the naxal movement. It has become a part and parcel of a Kolkata-way of life. Sometimes it makes us wonder that a quiet, silent structure has epitomized the living of this once capital of India.

There are a number of sightseeing locations near to the bridge, such as the historical cricket ground Eden Gardens, the wholesale market of Bara Bazaar, Millenium Park, the grand flower market of Mullickghat, and many more.

Women In Photography: Retrospection By An Indian Woman

Like most other professional fields where women were initially discouraged, the world of photography was also considered a male bastion as women were thought to be too delicate to carry the heavy photography equipment or work with the chemicals required for developing photographs.  Yet, women have invaded this male stronghold, and continue to do so with equal finesse and ease.  Notable women photographers have been taking various kinds of photographs, from portraits to landscapes, from war to day-to-day events; some of whom have been honoured to some who have quietly left behind nothing but the photographs they took.  This is indeed a tribute to the women in photography.

The early 20th century produced many notable women photographers.  Berenice Abbot started her career in photography as Man Ray’s darkroom assistant, knowing nothing about photography.  Her photographs of New York City in the 1930’s are an excellent depiction of urban life:  the diverse people, the places they work, live and play, and their daily activities.  Abbot also tried to sell her inventions like a distortion easel, telescopic lighting pole, known today as the autopole, and other aids in the “House of Photography”.
 
Diane Arbus, was known for “photographing freaks” because she often portrayed the absurdity with a sense of fatalism.  Elizabeth Alice Austen produced more than 8000 photographs in 40 years, but her photographs became famous a mere two years before she died.  By 1950, then aged 63, she had had to move into the Staten Island’s poorhouse. However, when her glass plate negatives were looked at, many were published in the book Revolt of Women, and her share of the proceeds were enough to move her into a private nursing home where she died in 1952.

The Depression and the two World Wars also brought many women photographers into the forefront.  Dorothea Lange, one of the first woman commercial photographers, was best known for her photographs of the Depression.  Her photographs depict the breadlines, the waterfront strikes, and the sheer desperation of the people.  She also captured images of the Japanese-American relocation camps, which were so critical of the Japanese-American policies that the Army confiscated them.  After the war, Lange co-founded the magazine Aperture.

Margaret Bourke-White was the world’s first woman war correspondent, photographing in the combat zones of Germany, Africa and Italy during WWII.  She was the only American photographer in Russia during the battle of Moscow, and she photographed Mahatma Gandhi a few hours before he was assassinated.  Annie Leibowitz, one the world’s leading entertainment photographers, has been published in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair.  She was the last person to professionally photograph John Lennon.  Anne Geddes is famous for her photographs of infants with flora and fauna.  There are numerous more notable women photographers, but it is impossible to note them all.

How are women photographers different?  Why do we need to look at photographs through the lens of gender?  Because women have a different outlook to life, which they imprint on the photographs.

Three Must Read Books For Photographers

“I think a photography class should be a requirement in all educational programs because it makes you see the world rather than just look at it.”  Indeed, a very true statement by an unknown author.  Of course, reading good books on photography is the other option.  But how does one choose the right books?  There are innumerable ones to pick from.  As a beginner, you want a book that is easy to ready, with good explanations, without too many technical words, and secrets that will quickly make you a pro.  As an advanced photographer, you certainly want some explanations, but more than that, you need tips from the pros. Well, here is a list and brief outlook of three must read books for photographers, whatever your level in photography may be.

The Digital Photography Book, author: Scott Kelby

This is a book for both beginners and advanced photographers.  Author of the award winning best seller, the Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers, Kelby, in the Digital Photography Book, tells the photographer how to take professional quality photographs.  This book does not focus on theories; there is very little jargon and hardly any confusing concepts. It does not give you technical explanations on how cameras work, and what physics lies behind the effects.  Instead, it tells you what to click to get a certain effect.  It tells you the settings and other things you need to capture a specific look.  Each page covers just one single trick or concept, perked with some unique feature, like ‘photo recipes’, exclusive tips from pros, snappy stories of personal photographing experiences, and photographs with simple breakdowns of the composition.  Written clearly, and in a light-hearted manner, it is a delightful read for anyone interested in photography.

Understanding Exposure, author: Bryan Peterson

Written by Peterson, a world renowned, award winning photographer, Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photos with a Film or Digital Camera is a book about the fundamentals of exposure.  It defines exposure, and explains how changing the exposure can affect an image.  It expounds on the three most important issues in photography: aperture, lighting and shutter speed.  The photographs in the book are excellent demonstrations of the techniques explained, further enhanced by his inclusion of the exposure settings and lenses used for each setting.  The book is ‘easy-read’ and not very technical or difficult to understand.  For the beginner, it is good exposure, and for the advanced photographer, it helps brush up one’s skills.

The Complete Guide To Digital Photography, author: Michael Freeman

This book is indeed a complete guide, in easy to understand explanations, to photography, right from choosing the camera and other equipment, to clicking, to digital enhancing, to printing.  Freeman, an excellent photographer himself, explains each section with necessary photographs and illustrations necessary for each stage; very helpful for both beginners and professionals. 

Now that you have read these books, and are ready with new ideas, don’t forget to read the most important book on photography, your camera’s user manual.

The Babu Culture Of Kolkata

A walk through the narrow streets of northern Kolkata, especially through the almost ancient and crumbling neighborhoods of Shovabazar, Bagbazar, or old Chitpur, will still give you an insight on the remnants of the baroque “babu culture” of colonial Kolkata. The “babus” (and not to leave out their bibis) were the neo-urban race of high-class, flamboyant Bengali gentlemen, who came into being as a result of intimate interaction with the British in the late 18th and 19th century Kolkata.

A peek onto any painting from the renaissance Bengal, be it the master art creations or the meager folk paintings such as those done by the potuas of Kalighat, would definitely introduce you to the typical envision of a so-called babu — his nicely oiled and curly hair parted in the middle and a garland of white flowers around one wrist, the corner of the pleat of his dhoti in one hand and a hukkah in the other, and they are either half lying on a bolster and smoking the hukkah or flirting with their dolled up mistresses or courtesans.

This babu culture was mostly fostered by the zamindari system and the wealthy class of Bengal. These people challenged the orthodox social ways of Bengal and gave rise to a completely new way of living in the then British-reigned Kolkata. A popular picture (of course as depicted in novels, history, and cinemas) of a babu’s way of life consisted of looking after his business or zamindari during the morning and going out in decorative horse-drawn carriages in the evenings to pleasure themselves, either for a ride in the “gorer math” or Kolkata maidan or on a joy ride in their bajras/boats over the Ganges or to their own mistresses. Drinking, mujras performed by courtesans, cock fighting, and pigeon races were most popular. With time, these babus also modernized themselves as they were introduced to motor cars that replaced the carriages and palanquins, churuts or cigars in place of hukkas, imported perfumes and not the “ittar” anymore, and most of all, imported liquors.

The other interesting part of this babu culture was the numerous examples of the whims or these babus. While some showed off their wealth during festivals like durga puja, diwali, or holi, others had more weird and unique wishes. Take for example Khelat Ghosh, one of the famous babus, who ordered for giant, stiff sweets to be made on which dancers would dance and still these sweets would remain intact. Another babu, Ramtanu Dutta, ordered his huge mansion to be washed with pure rose water twice a day!

Such instances are numerous in the history of the babus of Kolkata, and to be very true, they were not always met with happy endings. Such extravagance gradually ate away into their huge wealth, and there were a number of babus who ultimately had to take their lives faced with the misfortunes of huge debts and bankruptcy. But this is perhaps only one side of the picture. Though a part of the babu culture of old Kolkata surely relates to a life of lust, wealth, and debauchery, a closer look would surely bring out numerous exceptions. Some of these babus were great patrons of art and literature, particularly of music. The great palacial residence of Raja Rajendra Maullick still stands as a spectacular example of renaissance Bengal architecture. And who doesn’t know about the great contribution of the Thakurs (or Tagores) of Jorashanko in the renaissance Bengal?

To sum up in a word, the babus of Kolkata showed a magical era of wealth, grandeur, and extravagance, which gradually faded away with the century.

A Monsoon Afternoon By The River Side

“I shut my eyes in order to see.” –Paul Gauguin–

A view at the Riverside on a monsoon afternoon – This particular photograph was taken at random when I chanced to pass by the Ganges river side while out on a casual walk.

What attracted me to this scene was its haunting quality – the calm ness of the ambience which was nonetheless poignant with meaning. Like the rain that is yet to begin – the blank canvas waiting for the first drop of red paint or words that are yet to flow. Creativity takes its own incubation period to be unleashed.

The place reminded me of a stillness that is there before a creative brainstorm occurs. A silence that is not really silence but simply the deathly calm before the storm!

Mumbai: Stories In Stone (Part II)

The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India, standing majestic on the shores of the Arabian Sea, observes silently all those who come to Mumbai through that harbour.   It is Mumbai’s most famous monument, for it is the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of the city.  It has featured in many Indian movies, and gives the city its unique silhouette. And like the rest of the city, this harbour in South Mumbai is thronging with people, giving the monument so many stories to ponder upon.

The Gateway of India was constructed to celebrate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in India.  Even though the foundation stone for the monument was laid in 1911, the plan was approved only in 1914. The reclamation of Apollo Bundar (pier), the land on which the monument and the sea wall would be built, began by 1919. Designed by the architect George Wittet, the construction began in 1920, and the Gateway of India was opened 1924. And just as it had welcomed King George V, after India’s independence in 1947, it also bid adieu to the British as the First Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, which was the last British troop that left India. This last British troop passed through the Gateway of India on February 28, 1948.

Built out of yellow kharodi basalt stone and reinforced concrete, the Gateway of India is an arch standing at a majestic height of 26 metres (about 85 feet) at its highest point with the central dome being 15 metres (49 feet) in diameter.  The design combined both Hindu and Muslim architectural styles, the arch being in the Muslim style and the designs in Hindu style.  While the basalt stone was procured locally, the perforated screens were brought specially from Gwalior.   The whole harbour front, on which the Gateway of India stands, was realigned, and the construction cost was Rs. 21 lakhs which was an enormous amount in those times.

Today, the Gateway of India is a popular destination, not only for tourists, but for the citizens of Mumbai as well.  From the harbour, one can take a ferry to the Elephanta Caves, or one can just sit on the rocks and watch the ships and boats passing by.  Little children scamper around, indifferent to the history they are surrounded by; the security and police officers look wary, checking for individuals who might create disruptions.  The x-ray doorways to check for explosives are a recent addition to the landscape, but they are a requirement now, especially after the November 26, 2008, terrorist attacks. 

The Gateway of India was a mute spectator that terrifying evening as well, when the Taj Hotel across the road was attacked by terrorists, caught fire, and along with the rest of Mumbai, bled, and wailed.  Yes, the Gateway of India has many stories to tell.

Discover India: My Travels in Hampi

My Hampi travel was not a part of the annual vacation I take every year with my family – rather it was a solo journey for work and so before I set out for it I was not very optimistic that it would turn out to be an enjoyable one!

Not surprisingly I was wrong and the place with its rich heritage and history managed to mesmerise me in more ways than one. But first about the journey…I landed in Bangalore in the morning Jet Airways Flight, booked a car and off I sped, excited, only to discover that there are better ways than by car, to reach Hampi. The ideal way is by taking a train to Hospet, the nearest town (about 12 km from Hampi), and then renting cars/taxis/auto-rickshaws or taking the local bus.

Once I neared Hampi, I was struck by the lush green of the fields around, and the quietness, as the car wound its way through the hills and valleys. Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagar Empire (1336 AD – 1565 AD), renowned for its art and architecture. Situated on the banks of the Tungabhadra River, Hampi is dotted with huge boulders many of which have been intricately carved into statues of Hindu deities.

There are about 100 monuments in Hampi, scattered over 26sqkm, and these ruins are now a part of UNESCO World Heritage Site. The best way to enjoy Hampi is at a leisurely pace – you cannot rush through this place; else you would miss out on the charm that is intrinsic to this locale. Hire a cycle or simply stroll at a leisurely pace, taking in not just the history, but the breathtaking beauty of nature there.

Of all the ruins we visited, the most vivid in my mind is the Vithala Temple Complex, with its stone chariot, and the hall of the musical pillars. The guide told us tales of how each pillar was built in such a way, that when tapped, would emit sounds of a different instrument, one a sitar, one a veena, and such, and how musicians would create music out of the stone pillars.

The oldest temple in Hampi is the Virupaksha Temple (built in the 7th century AD), on the banks of river Tungabhadra. The Royal Enclosure was a sprawling fortified campus, and now holds the ruins of many royal edifices. Again, the guide pointed out that the Vijayanagar Empire had many visitors from foreign lands, and to honour their guests, the kings had the royal sculptors carve statues of the foreign emissaries.

Indeed, you can see many a statue with Chinese features, Mughal turbans and even in European attire. The Krishna Temple, the Hazara Ram Temple, the Lotus Mahal, the Queen’s Bath, and the Elephant Stables were the other places we visited. The Pattabhiram Temple, Achyut Raya’s Temple, Matanga Hill, and Anjaneya Hill and Temple were the other places which you cannot miss. In my later blogs I would discuss maybe in detail about each of these temples in details but for now let me sign of by saying that for a history lover Hampi is a must visit!