Thakur Rampal Singh’s expression can be likened to that of a certain Cheshire cat. His thin mustache is like a line drawn over his upper lip, his pagdi sits loftily on his head and his eyes twinkle. Standing beside him is his young bride Savita Bains. If there is a hint of coyness in her half smile, it’s overshadowed by her confident carriage. She looks straight into the camera, as if daring it to reduce her to a pose. Taken in Jaipur at around mid-1940s, this is the couple’s first picture together.
In a way, the photograph betrays an essential truth — theirs was not the perfect match by conventional standards. “She belonged to the royal family of Chhattisgarh and he was a commoner. She was hastily married off to him after her father died. I have a feeling my grandmother couldn’t get over that fact for a long time. My grandfather, however, loved her dearly and referred to her as Savitaji. It’s only after his death that my grandmother realised the true nature of their bond,” says granddaughter Ira Chauhan, a Dehradun-based content writer.
The photograph embodies a sense of innocence and “nascent camaraderie” that inspired Ira to “look at life positively”. That is why, when she realised that it was getting damaged with age, she took the photograph to The Goa Centre for Alternative Photography (Goa CAP) in Goa. “I didn’t want to lose something that’s so precious to me. The people in that photograph defined who we are,” says Ira, who found the contact on the internet.
With the aim to give a fillip to the ongoing efforts to preserve history and priceless memories and to create awareness on photo preservation, conservation and restoration, Goa CAP has initiated a unique project to promote public education and awareness on the topic. “It’s not a profit-making initiative and we give advice to people on photo preservation through workshops across India, including Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata. We tell them how to preserve old photos. Since they don’t have the technical knowhow, we don’t train them on photo restoration but they can always come to us for advice,” says P Madhavan, executive director, Goa CAP. Last month, they organised a workshop in association with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, which was a roaring success. “It’s easier to organise such events in association with museums, because they have the requisite infrastructure,” says Madhavan.
For cultural historian Savia Viegas, who is associated with the initiative and in 2012, undertook a three-year project (with funding from the Union ministry of culture) to source and study family photographs, each photograph is laced with important stories that talk about the socio-economic realities of those times. “I was once talking to an 80-year-old woman about her wedding photograph. She told me that her husband was a doctor and earned Rs 200 per month. This was in 1950. It took a lot of coaxing for him to finally take a wedding photograph. By the time she was able to persuade him, she was already three months’ pregnant. Three copies of the photo cost them Rs 25. She was unable to button up her dress behind as she had put on weight with the pregnancy. The photograph told two stories, one about the beautiful newly-weds and the other about her ill-fitting dress,” says Savia.
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Monica Kshatriya, a consultant with Chowgule College, Goa, shows us the 42-year-old photograph of her parents that she had given to Goa CAP for restoration. A strapping young man in drainpipe trousers with a hint of a scowl stands next to a demure young lady with a bouffant. The photograph is riddled with white patches. Prem and Amit Kshatriya’s marriage, however, was not marred with such blemishes. “This photograph was taken in 1971 right after their marriage in Chennai. My father, who is a retired army colonel, was sent to the Bangladesh War right after this photograph was taken,” says Monica. The photograph reflects the beginning of a tentative bond that two vastly different people were about to share, feels Monica. “My mother is a lover of Hindustani classical music. My father is a ballroom dancing enthusiast. So when at the warfront, he would listen to Hindustani classical music whenever he could on the radio and developed a taste for it. My mother undertook a ballroom dancing course,” says Monica.
These pictures are a treasure trove of collective memories. “When I see these pictures of strangers, I feel connected to them. We see our parents and grandparents in them. Yet, they are unique in their own right,” says Madhavan.