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Show and Tell

Some visuals remain in the memory long after the words describing the events have faded from our consciousness

Alabama Chanin Women Who Inspire Margaret Bourke White (photo credit Time Magazine)

I am taken by surprise at the surge of tears as I stand in one of the galleries of The Partition Museum in Amritsar. I am no stranger to Partition. I have studied it for years in my history classes, answered exams about it, watched myriad television serials and read books around it. They did move me, but in this distant and disconnected sort of way. But Margaret Bourke White’s photographs are like a punch in the gut. She was the first ever female photojournalist for Life Magazine and made it her mission to document the times through photographs.

Margaret’s camera recorded the staggering displacement of the greatest number of humans in the history of the world. She captured the images of death – people shot, dismembered, their bodies left to rot or picked clean by dogs… and images of the living as they clutched their heads in despair or stared blankly at her camera, the incomprehension, bewilderment and shock screaming at you from the pictures. Even after so many years, it is haunting to stare into the faces of people who have been to hell and back.

Migration India, October 1947: Boy sitting on rock ledge above refugee camp.
[:en]Migration India, October 1947: Boy sitting on rock ledge above refugee camp.[:]
Mahatma Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel, 1946
[:en]Mahatma Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel, 1946[:]

Here I must also speak of photographs that offer a glimpse of heaven. For a long time, stunning black and white pictures of classical singers that I had cut out from an inflight magazine, framed and hung on my living room wall. While I enjoy music, I know little of it, but something about the singers so completely immersed in that moment was almost mesmerizing. I felt the photographer has frozen for eternity that exact moment when Parveen Sultana, Bhimsen Joshi, MS Subbalakshmi, Gangubai Hangal and Kishori Amonkar were talking to God…The singers are oblivious to the photographer, but the latter is obviously so in sync and alert to them.

Bhimshen Joshi(left), MS Subbalakshmi(right)
[:en]Bhimshen Joshi(left), MS Subbalakshmi(right)[:]

A smiling baby, a young bride, a jubilant sportsperson, a pet… Photographs can uplift. It is instant happiness. The lockdown has obviously given people the pause to stand and stare and photograph. A double rainbow in Kolkata (a phenomenon that has surely happened before), and Facebook and Whatsapp were flooded with images of the same! In all the despair and uncertainty, the rainbow seemed like a dependable friend, constant and oh so beautiful and never to be taken for granted.

These photographs capture stories good and bad, sad and hopeful, in a way no written tome ever could. Wordy accounts can be manipulated, misinterpreted, misrepresented and misreported. The photographs are stark documents of facts, warts and all. And of ordinary people and their extraordinary lives.

About the Author

Pankaja Srinivasan

Pankaja Srinivasan is a recently retired Senior Deputy Editor with The Hindu in Coimbatore for fourteen years. Before that she has been with several National dailies and magazines, besides doing freelance work. She enjoys reading and is currently also wrapping up a cookbook she has been working on for far too many years.