The curious case of old photographs

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on March 18, 2016
Framed and found: Photographs are often found among piles of discarded objects at the ‘antique shops’ of Karaikudi. Photo: Sravanthi Challapalli

Framed and found: Photographs are often found among piles of discarded objects at the ‘antique shops’ of Karaikudi. Photo: Sravanthi Challapalli

Framed and found: Photographs are often found among piles of discarded objects at the ‘antique shops’ of Karaikudi. Photo: Sravanthi Challapalli

Framed and found: Photographs are often found among piles of discarded objects at the ‘antique shops’ of Karaikudi. Photo: Sravanthi Challapalli

Studio images of ordinary folks are ending up in antiques shops and finding buyers too

Entering a shop selling antiques in Karaikudi’s Muneeswaran Kovil Street, I’m jolted. My travel companions have led me to one in their search for brass rice measures and enamel utensils. A narrow staircase leads up to rooms that are a study in anarchy; there are heaps of squalid objects — sofas with unravelling wirework, vintage radios, clocks, crockery, dolls, trunks and suitcases, toys, a puja stand, a rocking horse, a silk-and-zari turban with fake pearls, rusty flasks, water coolers, empty tins of Glaxo and Ovaltine, round, black electrical switches familiar to those who grew up in the 1970s, and photographs — of people, families, graduation day, and school and college groups.

The photographs bring me up short. I’ve seen family pictures being sold at the second-hand Moore Market that once stood opposite the Chennai Central railway station. Black-and-white images of people who have posed in studios, probably for the family, ending up in shabby markets. How do they make that journey? I try to think of the possibilities — maybe everyone died, a house was sold off, the inheritors weren’t interested in the photographs of the extended family, or even immediate family, they didn’t know how to preserve them, they didn’t have space, they didn’t know whose photographs they were…

But who would buy them? They mostly featured ordinary people; some posed easily, others not so. Many in the Karaikudi shop had children in them — boys with long hair, perhaps before a tonsure at a temple somewhere; babies on a table with nothing on but a gold chain or two, big black bottus on the forehead and cheek to guard against evil eye, and a gold belt around the groin — a favourite studio pose for infants of the ’60s and ’70s; little girls in frocks with bindis and kajal-lined eyes; couples — newly married, middle-aged, old.

Would you sell your family photographs? I ask someone who has many. He gives it some thought and says he might, if he didn’t have space for them. Who would use them? He doesn’t know. They might be valuable if they can be dated and turned into postcards or keepsakes. The Internet tells me that art students use them for projects. But few photographs I see in Karaikudi lend themselves to such use. And then, why would there still be so many around if they did sell?

Bismi Arts, in fact, has a roomful. And Rabek, who owns this business along with his father, seemingly has an equal number of stories to share. He once found two customers sobbing over a photograph. NRIs and sisters, they had stumbled upon the photograph of their mother — now an ailing 90-year-old — in her graduation robes. She had stood first in the university, they told him. He sold them five photographs for ₹1,500. A man from Punjab, who had studied in a Coimbatore college, discovered his class photograph here. An 85-year-old businessman from Karaikudi came to buy a cashbox and ended up finding a picture of himself as a child. Antiques dealers from Jaipur take back photographs to sell in their shops, says Rabek. Some of the photos are not older than 30 years, going by the date on the frame. Many of the other items don’t seem to be antiques either, more like everyday objects from the recent past.

Mohammed Lateef, who runs the antiques store The Old Curiosity Shop in Chennai, says old photographs make for a niche business. People buy them to research an era, its fashions, architecture and even the studio furniture. Publishers and writers have used them as illustrations or in book covers to evoke a bygone era. An even smaller niche of hobbyists uses it for collages. I show Lateef some pictures. He agrees they are pictures of ordinary people that are unlikely to be bought to be shown off. “Look at the backdrops. They are usually painted — mansions, pillars, flowers, palaces, elements of Britain. We were poor, and we wanted to be like the Joneses.”

Most of the stuff at Bismi Arts comes from large family homes that have been partitioned, says Rabek. Shahul Hameed runs a similar business in the same street. There is only one cardboard box of photographs in his store, but there are legions of enamelware — kettles, teapots, tiffin carriers — lining the shelves. These have come from the erstwhile Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Hungary and the UK, among other places, and were all part of dowries. There was simply too much, so it was sold off, says Hameed. So, not all the stuff is from families that fell on hard times? “Oh no! They were too many to use, a burden,” he adds. I leave the place with mixed feelings, not without wondering what will one day happen to my, or anyone else’s collection of family photographs. I don’t know which is worse — having to part with cherished images for money, or because they became a burden. Maybe the sellers kept one copy of each photo. I hope they did. Maybe, some of the sold photos will find other homes, or be reunited with their families, like the lucky ones did at Bismi Arts.

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Published on March 18, 2016
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