The Memory Keeper
Haleema Hashim’s family album discovered in the dusty corner of an old cupboard becomes a cultural document of a community, blurring the lines between the personal and the collective
She looks at the light and frowns. Something is not quite right. She picks up her camera, its familiar shape sitting snugly in her practised hands. She checks the exposure, adjusts the focus, and allows her model (today, it is her niece) to move around the light, waiting for that moment when the light will play into her frame.
There is an unmistakable ring to the word ‘Ummijaan’, which means great-grandmother in Urdu, the ancient Indian language of subtleties. You hear not a word, but an entire world resonating with deep experiences, the lines of antiquity carrying with it generations of beauty, and the breath of time travelling through rounded syllables leaving a silver trail of history behind. It smells of life, a life lived, a life given, a life so full that its remnants are like winter mists hiding the charm of spring. And when the mists give way, it is hard not to be touched by what it holds – serendipity leaning on the crutches of posterity, smiling at what is to come.In Nihaal Faizal’s case, what was to come after a chance conversation with his grandmother was a way into the secret garden of his Ummijaan’s world, where stories unfolded in black and white, memories emerged as tangible snapshots and a picture of Ummijaan as Haleema Hashim was developed, a woman unlike any in the Kutchi-Memon community she belonged to. ‘This community had migrated from the Kutch region of Gujarat following a large-scale conversion of religion from Hinduism to the faith of Islam, having chosen Cochin for its promise of secularism and its prospects for business. It was into this community, which had already established its presence in Cochin, that Ummijaan was born in 1928. In 1945 at the age of 17, she married Hashim Usman (Abbajaan) and by 1950 moved to Yasmin Manzil, a house specially constructed for her large joint family. It was here that she began her practice of photography,’ explains Nihaal, chronicler of Haleema’s legacy and a student of art at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.
It was a strange connection that she felt when she held her first camera, a Yashica, in her hands. She felt its straight lines and sharp edges and knew that this was going to be a journey like no other, because here, every nuance, every texture and every little detail of her soul structure would matter. For as it left her body, it would be captured again through her lens.
Looking at Haleema’s photographs of, primarily, children and the women of the family, you get a sense of keen intent behind the meticulous compositions. It’s a perfect combination of the passion of a professional with the light-heartedness of an amateur. ‘I think that’s what makes her photographs stand apart, that they were informal, yet professional. When I saw the photographs, I immediately noticed Ummijaan’s technical mastery of the medium. This mastery becomes an obvious reference point in understanding that she took photography as a technique very seriously, as opposed to just a tool to record images,’ says Nihaal.
‘She was quiet precise as a photographer,’ recalls Tasneem Arif, Nihaal’s grandmother and Haleema’s daughter-in-law. ‘She would constantly say things like, “there isn’t enough light on your face”. Light was very important for her, that’s why she took so many pictures outside in the garden. She knew a lot about photography from books. They would come from Pakistan to Bombay and then to Cochin by post,’ she adds.
In an age of Instagrams and Photoshop, it becomes difficult to conceive of a time when every frame mattered, when patience was what defined the practice, and when the wait to see the images shot were just as precious as the process. ‘There was a lot of excitement about the colour photographs. I don’t remember viewing the black and white ones, but the colour photographs would come a long time after they were taken. She would send them to America to get them developed,’ Tasneem tells us.
‘How did she manage to send them to America? I haven’t heard of this connection before,’ asks a visibly surprised Nihaal.
‘Ah, Babu mama, who was Abbajaan’s cousin and their neighbour had a business partner in America and they would send it through him. In fact, Babu mama was the one who gifted her the Yashica camera. He was interested in photography himself and even had a makeshift darkroom in his house. He was quite supportive of her practice and would drop off her rolls at Vengard Studio in Fort Cochin or at Krishnan Nair Studio in Ernakulam,’ says Tasneem.
She would always wait with quiet anticipation. She was used to it by now, spending hours wondering how the camera had seen what she had seen. She had started doing this now, treating the camera as a living, breathing entity in her life. How it had so seamlessly become a part of her world, she could never explain. But it had, taking in its warm embrace her entire family.
The faces staring at you – a child looking surprised, a woman looking out of the window, a woman reading, children laughing, a coy bride – remind you that photographs, particularly those found in dusty family albums, hold the weight of generations behind its skin. They also remind you that the individuality of the person taking the photographs is etched in its layers. And so, for us on the outside, these photographs, more than its aesthetic appeal, make us curious about Haleema herself. ‘As a personality, she was quiet and reserved. Abbajaan was very strict and she maintained a strong balance. I remember from when I was 3 or 4 years old, a sight of her tending to her garden at Yasmin Manzil. Back then she used to grow vegetables. She became interested in flowers much later and then there were also the hens and the dogs that came after. She wasn’t like us. She wouldn’t just go on talking. She said very little, but she would give all her kids lessons in history – she would tell us tons of stories. She was very well read. Through her, everyone in the family took up an interest in reading,’ says Tasneem. (Tasneem was Abbajaan’s niece, before she came into the house as Haleema’s daughter-in-law). The reason you see several pictures of women reading. As Nihaal adds, ‘Ummijaan had the ability to read multiple languages including Urdu, English and Malayalam, and reading became an important part of her daily life. In fact, there are as many as three self-portraits of her reading.’
It had become a family event now. The dressing up, the posing, the ‘catching the light’, the giggles, the excitement. She enjoyed it completely. All that knowledge she had gained through words was manifesting itself in front of her eyes. The camera, her will, and her family’s ready acceptance took it beyond the four walls of her home, into the lush land of light and the intensity that comes with it.
‘I remember our photographic excursions to Subash Park in Ernakulam. We would go there at noon, when the sun was at its strongest. Ummi and the kids from Fort Cochin would come there with the driver and we would meet them at the park, as we lived close by. All the kids would get very excited and would get dressed in nice clothes with bright colours. The whole thing revolved around photography. We would quickly go, take the pictures and leave, as it would be too hot. On Saturdays we would go to her house in Fort Cochin though and that’s when she took those pictures of us there,’ says Tasneem. ‘At that time, we never realised the value of these photographs. Today, it seems like an obvious thing to take family photographs, but she was the only one in the family taking photographs back then. It’s only because of her that we have some record of our childhoods,’ she adds.
The bride looked beautiful. To her, every bride she photographed carried a part of her own journey. It could be a look, a feature, an expression, the clothes or the jewellery – she diligently looked for these connections while looking through her lens. The camera always showed her what the eye couldn’t see, and that process held a deep fascination for her, wondering what the camera would have seen of her as a bride.
Haleema’s collection of the brides of the Kutchi-Memom community is a revelation of Haleema the artist. There is a sense of yearning that spills out of this particular collection of photographs, as against the breezy quality of pictures taken at home (‘Her wedding had not been documented and there exist no photographs of Haleema as a bride,’ says Nihaal.) In the pictures taken at home, you are constantly aware of Haleema experimenting with the medium, the composition, the exposure, and the placement of the subject. But in her brides’ series, you are overpowered by that sense of yearning mixed with that of the bride herself, where the loss of chances, of childhood, and the subtle angst of watching life surge ahead, gives these images a precious quality of innocence lost and regained. It hardly comes as a surprise then that this is where the end had started to unfurl. ‘There was an instance where she was forbidden to photograph a bride on Islamic grounds, which deeply hurt and insulted her and lead to the premature end of that project. It also coincided with the slow conclusion of her practice at home, as all her children had grown older and that section of her project had thus been completed.’
At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, we will see an exhibition of Haleema’s photographs titled ‘Ummijaan – Making Visible a World Within’ curated by Nihaal. We will see this journey neatly framed, sequenced, arranged and laid out for a profound visual experience. We will hear Tasneem’s sentiment echoed as she says, ‘We never thought about this at the time, nor did we think much about her pictures. It was just something she did. It makes me very happy to see that it resulted in something.’ We will hear Nihaal’s own reasons for this exhibition: ‘These photographs are important to me mostly because just as her life gave way to mine, in a very literal sense, her practice can be seen as engendering my own.’ And we will hear 87-year-old Haleema’s indifference to the exhibition when Nihaal tells her about it: ‘Why? What for? Who would want to see my photographs?’
But most of all, we will hear the unmistakable ring of that often misjudged word ‘destiny’, telling us that always, within the annals of personal history, we will find that every pair of eyes, past and present – looking, absorbing, observing, experiencing – was there all along.