Vintage in her ways
Anusha Yadav, founder of the Indian Memory Project, a fascinating archive of old photographs and letters, lives life in sepia tone. She tells kareena N Gianani that the project has made her see people and human history in a new light
Photographer Bipin Kokate directs 38-year-old Anusha Yadav to move closer, then farther, from The Beatles poster in the hallway of her Khar home. Yadav is a patient subject. She does what she is told to do, holds still for just the right time, and continues asking Kokate questions on cricket.
Over the next 10 minutes, Kokate, a usually reticent man who has the next assignment on his mind, opens up about how he almost became a cricketer after being selected for the A Division in 1996.
He speaks of unfulfilled childhood dreams, his old photographs with cricket gear, and the politics of the game. Yadav, on the other hand, has found another fascinating account for her pet project, The Indian Memory Project.
For the past three years, Yadav’s obsessions and subjects of interest come in sepia tones -- a 1933 photograph of a lady with arresting eyes and heirloom jewellery, who compulsively collected fish-shaped soaps and canvas shopping bags; a picture of a man dressed in a tiger outfit in Jabalpur photographed by an Anglo-Indian who worked in the railways in 1930; or an unassuming duo who, if you care to read about, were the first to form a rock band in north India circa 1962. Yadav’s 2010 project now has 109 stories of love, loss, the British Raj, the Partition and people’s attempts at posterity.
Yadav settles down on a settee and speaks about her education at the National Institute of Design and consequent work with graphic designing and advertising. "I love designing and illustrating books, especially coffee table books. I can’t do fiction though. It stumps me,” she shrugs, rolling her first cigarette.
It was in 2005 that Yadav first experimented with photography. It was a lecture by photographer Max Vadukul that really did it. “The talk discussed photography as a culture. In fact, in the West, that’s what photography is -- it is an opinion and an expression of the photographer which isn’t boxed into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. In India, a photographer’s work will always be compared to, say, Raghu Rai. If you can do what he does, you’re good enough. But that’s not what art and expression is,” feels Yadav.
So, armed with a Canon Powershot, Yadav wiggled her way to parties, get-togethers and weddings and documented life. “Through a lens, I saw things I’d never seen before.” In 2006, she got admission at The London School of Art at Brighton, but she could sustain herself only for seven months there. “I came back because I couldn’t support myself, but with the feeling that I learnt things I never would have in decades here.” After returning to India, Yadav’s first photography assignment was a fashion magazine shoot of Rakhi Sawant, which was followed by wedding and film shoots.
In 2010, she approached a publisher with the idea of a book on weddings. The idea was to archive pictures and stories of how people got married, their customs and rituals, and their folk stories, too.
Yadav let her friends and family know, and hoped for entries to pour in. In came photographs, and with them they brought candid stories on issues such as religious conversion and polygamy. “That’s when the penny dropped, and I knew this could be more than a book on weddings. Actually, the book never took off, but I knew I wanted to build a library of people’s photographs.”
What renders Yadav’s project a warm touch is her attention to narrative. Most of her photographs are accompanied by long stories of the people and the times frozen in the frame. The very first photograph Yadav received was by Madhpriya Sinha, about her grandparents Mr and Mrs Chowfin who got married in 1938 in Lahore (now in Pakistan).
The entry discusses how Mr Chowfin was part-Chinese and his then would-be wife, a Pathan. “When the strapping Pathans from the bride’s family went to the station to receive the groom, they returned empty-handed claiming that the groom’s family never arrived. There were, however, many Chinese people hanging around at the station.”
“People began writing in from all over the world admitting that they broke down after seeing some pictures, and finding their lost relatives across the world.” A few after the website went up, the Singapore government invited Yadav to speak about the Singapore Memory Project in which it had invested $3 billion. “There, I found out I was the only one in India doing it, which felt great at first. But it also came with the realisation that such little is being done to archive our rich past.”
Yadav’s favourite entries, she says, are the ones which archive the Partition in great detail. The story of a man called Syed Ali Naqvi, who felt uprooted after the Parition, made Yadav gulp. “We, in India, see Partition as something that changed our lives forever. But people from across the border have similar stories, and it is important to know them, too.” There is a post on Kashmiri Pandits which she feels is very evocative, as is one on a man who often hunted tigers.
Ridding oneself of prejudice is something Yadav learnt best through her project. “I come from Jaipur and have lived in Ahmedabad, where religious prejudices abound. But I have to keep all my baggage aside when I work with my project. Even if the tiger hunter had not transformed, I would have chosen to archive him. The Indian Memory Project is a library of what happened to us, not an opinion of how things should havebeen.”