Tag Archives: Black and White


Docklands #3, c. 1980



Docklands #2, c. 1980


Postcard to Dianne Regisford, 14 April 2014


Photograph of a Ship, from the Personal Collection of Dimitri John Perivolaris, Undated

Trader, Jardin des Tuileries, Paris, April 2008

Perhaps tomorrow

my children

will grow old

awaiting my return

From`I Still Have Time’, written in Peshawar City by Partaw Naderi and translated by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari (© The Poetry Translation Centre, 2000, 2008).

Naadu, `Lost and Found’ (8), Parvati Nair, London, June 2008. (Dimitri & Adamantia Perivolaris, Montreal, October 1957).

The suitcase, I realize, has served as a sort of album. It has revealed memories that I can visualize. Few objects that we inherit are as eloquent as the family album. Inevitably, the album is nostalgic, though one never really knows what it is that this nostalgia stems from. As we look at images of grandparents, uncles and aunts or even our parents in their youth, on their wedding day, in a studio, at a picnic, all before our time, we never know really where to place them. These people, who are so familiar to us, seem strangers here. Their world seems removed from ours. Their clothes are different, their demeanour, even their gaze. Different and somehow unknowable. We feel a sense of loss for what we missed out on, a time before ours when we did not exist and they did. We realize too that we are barred by the irrevocability of time from accessing their pasts. Or from ever touching the core of their lives before our time. The album marks an impossibility of return.
Having lived mostly in Europe and North Africa, I remember the family albums that we had at home and took with us everywhere: my father’s ancestral village in northern Kerala, my mother aged 12 wearing a skirt and seated near the rose bush in her parents’ garden in Trivandrum. Some of my older cousin who had been raised by my grandmother. But none of her. For she refused to be photographed after losing a beloved son too soon, and after that always claimed she was metaphorically dead too. Unable to be photographed. And so my grandmother continued to live for many years more, but in our photographic memories she and my uncle remain the ages they were when he passed away. What these images from before my time tell me is so different from what I can read into the images that were taken in my time, when I was present enough to know the context and the people. I recall the black and white photographs of my father’s grand-aunts, taken perhaps in the late 1920s or early 1930s, great-grand-aunts of mine I never met, who lived all their lives on the Malabar coast … . They had very long earlobes, stretched beyond belief in accordance with traditional ideas of feminine beauty and wore only a white cloth draped over their shoulders and around their lower bodies. I would look at their images when I was a child with no sense of recognition as such. I just accepted that this was how my ancestors used to be. My mother told me that these ladies had perhaps only ever posed for one or two photographs taken in their entire lifetimes, no doubt under duress from the more modern members of the family, those who lived in cities and worked with the British and then came back for short breaks to the ancestral home. They had feared that the camera would steal away their spirit or bring bad luck. When I used to open the album and see their photographs, I would, at the age of four or five, find no way of relating to these ladies, of seeing them as relatives of mine. They were strangers … strangers who looked back unseeingly at me through the faded sepia of time.
Until, one day not so long ago, I suddenly realized that the family album is also a prime genealogical text. We trace our ‘roots’ through the images within and we imagine where we have come from. In a strange, unthinking way, we define ourselves through these others who are strangers but ancestors all the same. It’s probably all in the imagination, but we look at them in search of ourselves. It happened when I was at the library at SOAS, looking for a book by an Urdu novelist. I found myself suddenly before an old anthropological text – I wish now that I had taken the details down, but at the time I was too engrossed in what I found, too shaken almost, to remember to do so – on the Nairs of Travancore State. It had been written in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century by an Englishman, an anthropologist who had spent years measuring the cranial sizes of his subjects and labelling the different skin tones he encountered – wheaten, copper, bronzed copper, tarnished copper, burnt copper … . Black hair and eyes, rounded faces, strong upper torsos. He described the habits of the Nairs, their matrilineal homesteads, in paddy fields, linked to other homesteads by tortuous paths, backwaters and rivers routes, and unusual marriage and kinship practices. He did so with a kind of measured rationality that sent a chill through my spine. He described their food habits, their religious caste-based practices, their social structures and language. The Nairs are a warrior caste, he said, with matriarchs at the heads of their extended households. His prose was clinical, as exact and encasing as possible. What shocked me was not what he said, but rather the fact that his detached and scientific tone was directed at the very symbols that denoted Kerala for me. Naadu … a single word to encompass land, homeland, home, origin. There were some photographs there too, of ladies like my great grand-aunts, bare-breasted, with long earlobes stretched over a lifetime, dressed in a white mundu and neriyal, their long hair coiled on one side of their heads. The photographs leapt out of the book and inserted themselves into the album that I realized I was still carrying around in my mind, superimposing themselves on the photographs of my great grand-aunts. They became one and the same. There was an absurdity about my reading this text. Me, dressed in jeans, earlobes unstretched, trying to find out about my imagined yet alien homeland from this old anthropological text from which my aunts seemed to be gesturing to me!

© Parvati Nair, 2008

Boxes, Parvati Nair, `Lost and Found’ (5)

When you come to think of it, the world is full of boxes. Boxes that overlap, collide, fit into one another and contain yet more boxes inside. Boxes that release boxes. The image of the suitcase on the blog also brought thoughts of another suitcase to me. One that was less domestic or immediate, but important nonetheless, that I had read about in recent weeks. Capa’s lost suitcase [http://tinyurl.com/5tgu7b]. Filled with unseen images of the Spanish Civil War. Images that Capa himself believed to have been lost. A lost suitcase when found contains not possessions, but a cache. Findings. Treasure. The invaluable. And indeed, Capa’s images of the Spanish Civil War are rightly invaluable. Think of Capa fleeing war-torn Paris for the safety of America, abandoning the contents of his dark room yet another box. Think too of the rolls of film transported from Paris in flimsy cardboard cases, boxes too, to Marseille, and from there, in the unlikely hands of a Mexican general, to Mexico City and now, in a final journey, to New York, to that vast repository of images, yes, another box that is the International Center of Photography.
Boxes shadow people. Even when put away, lost or left behind, they accompany them. Boxes remind us of our own mortality. Of journeys in life and death. In this case, though, the box has come back to life, a reminder that a box, if closed, can always be reopened.
Why is this find of Capa’s images in a suitcase so meaningful? Not merely because they were Capa’s but also because, in the box-like frame of each unearthed image, lie buried memories of Republican Spain. And so it is that this suitcase here leads me to think of Capa’s suitcase and so marks a small gesture of unearthing, of emergence, of shedding light on what has lain invisible and silent for so long. I hear once again the voices of those I knew in Madrid back in the 1970s, when the dictatorship was on its last, shaky legs, Paco, Toñín, Pepe Luis, Cristina, so many others. Who, in broken snippets, told me in whispers that they had been panaderos, albañiles, enfermeras, and then had found themselves becoming Republicans until the war ended. After that, they said, they had been nothing at all, people without memories, without a past. We were lucky to be alive. The neighbour next door would have told on us if he had found out. No me preguntes. Es mejor no recordar. Don’t ask so many questions. I prefer not to remember. It had been the only way to carry on and get by. I think of them whenever I look at Capa’s images. These people I have known. They most probably are no longer alive. So, if the finding of Capa’s images is singularly important for me, it is because it honours them. No, it does not just honour them … it vindicates them. It vindicates who they once were. What they might have been and what they stood for. It validates a dream. When I think of Capa’s work, the image I find most striking is not that famous one of a falling soldier. It is one of a group of Republican women washing clothes in a thin stream of water. Engaged in the act of survival. Like these people I knew, old men in my barrio, who used to sit for hours on chairs out on the pavement in the evenings or who lived their weeks, yes, week after week, in the hope of winning the football pools. Old men in berets who had been gardeners, porters, doormen and messengers, old women who went shopping in the Mercado every morning to buy fresh fish and who walked around with curlers in their hair, these old men and women who had lived in silence and in forgetting for 36 long years. To think of Capa’s rescued images is to remember them.

[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]