The Keeper of Secrets

After decades of archiving family tales through photographs,Nony Singh finally gives a glimpse into the women in her life.

Written by Somya Lakhani | Published: October 4, 2013 1:52 am

When World War II began,all the imported toys available in the market next to Nony’s house,in Lahore,started disappearing. What was an eight-year-old,back in the ’40s supposed to do if not play,she wondered. She made mud houses in the garden,stitched up dolls,painted rosy cheeks on them and added tiny cut pieces of the parandi to make hair. And once,she plucked flowers,placed them inside pages of her grandfather’s fat book and decided she would paste them on white sheets of paper and take photographs with her father’s camera. The flowers spoiled the book,Nony got slapped and the pictures never got clicked. But the war had done Nony a favour. “The war was bad,yes. But my imagination grew stronger. I had to create something to play or capture a moment to keep myself busy,” says a 77-year-old Nony Singh,while sipping tea in her living room in the Capital.

The room is simple,yet exudes regality but it’s the walls that draw you to them. Stark white frames that enclose black-and-white photographs captured by Nony since she was a child,stare at you with a certain warmth. In one corner there is her mother,Mohinder Kaur,sitting gracefully at a family picnic in 1943; and in another frame,is her photographer daughter Dayanita,impatiently waiting to leave for college while Nony’s shadow falls on her ambitious first-born.

For decades,Nony has been the keeper of secrets and moments. Now,she’s disclosing some of those secrets in The Archivist (Rs 1,500),a collection of photographs taken by her over the years. Veteran photographer Raghu Rai released the book at the Delhi Photo Festival (DPH) on Sunday. “At the last DPH,I went with Dayanita and made videos on my iPad. I came to be known as the old woman with the iPad and it was then that I realised that life is passing by and I haven’t fulfilled some of my dreams. I hadn’t written my biography and I hadn’t been in touch with photography either. After this revelation,I began work on The Archivist,” says Nony,who got 5,000 negatives developed for her maiden project.

The walls of her living room,the book and the numerous albums in her house are dominated by women and even the paintings at the entrance have women in them. The book starts with photographs of beautiful women dancing with a turbaned man (her husband),accompanied with a handwritten note dating back to 1960. It reads,“Girlfriends till he married Nony. Hope so! These photos had been carelessly thrown in a box! Have some respect for the photography at least!”

As much as she liked being behind the box-camera,she also enjoyed posing for it,and The Archivist has pictures of little Nony dressed like a village girl; helping her brother with a gun; and holding her eldest daughter Dayanita (born in 1961). There are photographs of her sister Guddie striking a Scarlett O’ Hara and Sophia Loren pose; her mother dressed in her father’s clothes,a picture of girls on trees (a rare sight back then) and pictures of her room at the Oberoi Palace Hotel where she was holidaying with her husband. Gradually,the camera turned towards her daughters and an impatient Nixi (as Dayanita was known as a child) became her favourite subject — dressed as a Maharashtrian woman; as a frowning Mother Mary; with fluffed hair; and a teenager in a halter she was not allowed to wear.

Nony also clicked her other daughters Nikita and Rishma and a disturbing image of Rishma posing next to a glass enclosure with stuffed tiger cubs makes it to The Archivist. “My father in-law was asked to shoot a man-eating tigress but no one knew she was pregnant. Those were her unborn cubs. It’s an unusual sight,something we will never see again,” says Nony.

It’s like the archival bug bit Nony and everywhere the camera accompanied her. “It’s very important for me to capture every moment. If I’m at a party and I don’t click,I don’t enjoy myself. I’ve to click,collect and archive all the time. I just can’t help it,” she says. Any moment left out by her camera leaves her unhappy. “As a young girl in Gurdaspur,I was cycling to a school where I learnt kathak,tabla and singing,and I saw a beautiful girl with shepherds. I wish I had a camera at that time. She had such pretty eyes. I stopped and asked them if they will come back again. They told me they cross this way often. I waited for that girl every day,but never saw her again. I do remember her name,Noorie. I regret this even 50 years later,” she says.

Conversations with Nony are peppered with anecdotes about Dayanita. Sometimes she shares a childhood story and bursts into laughter,at other times she talks about the freedom she gave her. But ask her what the maverick daughter inherited from Nony and she says,“You can’t inherit technology. But she has inherited my sense of art,creativity and proportion. Dayanita is passionately possessive about every moment. She is like a soldier who marches even in her sleep.”

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