Sepia Toned Memories

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It was incredible, the sheer length. From scalp up to almost her heels, the thick cascade of luxuriant tresses swept down like a torrent. Meticulous care went into the assembly of this hirsute cataract. The hair was braided into two extended braids that dangled from her nape, just below the ears. Fist thick ? and gray. Gray? Yes, indeed. She was at least fifty. She sat demure and silently, on a chair crouched over a low table, assisting her photographer husband: both ran a small tumble-down studio that shot passport size photographs. Black & White in those days. She trimmed the matt finished copies, and after writing a few indexing reference numbers behind them, pushed them into tiny yellow manila envelopes for delivery.

The old couple, from morning to around nine in the night, went about their humble business. Each day, riding past the ramshackle establishment, I would notice them: he stooped over some ancient Hasselblad box camera, wiping the prized lens, and she stooping over a table, cranking her hand operated cutting machine, snipping off unwanted extra edges from snapshots. Once, when I needed to apply for a passport, I dropped in for my own shot, I found myself fussed over, he adjusting my tie knot and she pushing back one or two locks of my own hair from my forehead. After what seemed an eternity, they said all was set, he hid behind his camera tripod, swathed in a black sheet, and she stood beside him, wringing her hands. For them, each customer was verily the king. Obviously both of them knew their art. Though reduced by circumstance to earning their keep through peddling copies of mundane snapshots, they had had better times ? for on the tiny studio’s walls, hung along two lines, were some really superb B & W compositions. One was of Gandhi, ‘taken when he was here sir, by me’, the man proudly said, as he sidled beside me to admire his own work.

…I asked the man at the foyer, on the whys and where of the dismantled studio’s owners. The man shook his head. The old couple was gone, he said, looking upwards ? heaven…

‘It is superb, class’, I said. He nodded, for he knew it was..

It was superb. Karsh of Ottawa would have stopped in his stride for it, such was the effect of the sepia tone framed picture.

The alumni association of my alma mater was scheduled to hold its thirtieth class reunion, and I was back, amid old friends, familiar faces and recognizable voices. We talked and laughed, recollecting old jokes and happenings: mimicking, our teachers, till our bellies ached. For keep-sake, we fished out our SLR, video, and digital cameras, shooting meters and rolls of film: making faces instead of saying cheese. It was fun, the get together.

Early next morning, I drove up the familiar sinuous laterite-walled alleys of my once favorite town: post monsoon humidity had made every nook and cranny green. This was where I grew up. Found the first stirrings of love. Earned my collegiate degree. Though the streets were still identifiable, the fa?ade on either side had changed. Newer glitzy shops, with wide glass panes. Bright neon lights, traffic lights ? Mangalore had metamorphosed. I stopped at the road junction. Looked left. The tiny studio was gone. I parked the car, and walked up. The entire place was different now: a ritzy mall like structure now stood at the spot. I asked the man at the foyer, on the whys and where of the dismantled studio’s owners. The man shook his head. The old couple was gone, he said, looking upwards ? heaven. The studio itself had been sold off, but their son, had set up another studio on the main road. I had with me six rolls of films I needed to develop, and drove the three miles, enquiring along the way: I located the new establishment. A natty smart youngster in tie, greeted me. The whole place was air-conditioned, spic and span, with brass-potted foliage plants here and there. The walls had huge multicolored posters, of damsels with sun tans on a beach, and buxom film starlets.

After handing the rolls over, I politely enquired on where or how I could meet with the owner: a man writing something behind the counter looked up. His enquiring eyes flitted for a second or two, ‘Mr. Seshachalam? Aren’t you Seshachalam?’

‘No no, Arunachalam. Kumar Arunachalam. I was in Mangalore in the sixties and seventies, in the medical college, when your parents operated a small studio in Balmatta’

He stood up beaming, and shook my hands warmly.

‘I’ve seen you doctor when your were here, I was in St. Aloysius

‘Just wait here sir, I have something for you’.

Fifteen minutes later, he was back, handing me a large brown paper wrapped parcel. I ripped off the wrapping, and found a wood framed, sepia toned black and white photograph. Mahatma Gandhi. Taken in Mangalore. On the back of the framed picture were some digits and reference numbers ? the very ones that once were scrawled in fountain pen ink by a grand old lady with thick gray braids that touched her heels. As I peered at the historic photograph, I saw reflected from the glass sheet that covered it, another image ? of two old souls, proud and committed. One proudly holding a box camera, and another proudly sporting a pair of painstakingly plaited braids, hung front of her shoulders, and reaching to her ankles.

‘Dad said you liked the picture sir, and that you had purchased it. He couldn’t trace you, so he left it with me to see that it is delivered. What a coincidence this is! His soul will rest in peace now Dr. Seshachalam, oops sorry, sorry, Arunachalam’.

Only, I had never paid for, nor asked for the picture. I had just stood and admired it in silence. But for that old-school Karsh of Kanara, that momentary pause of mine in front of his masterpiece was, in his mind, the ultimate compliment to his skill – maybe no one had ever tarried to see the framed portraits on his studio wall.

About the Author:
, widely published author of four books and a prodigious number of articles and research papers on the web and elsewhere, is a maverick Professor of Anatomy at KMC, Mangalore, where he has lived ever since his days as a medical student. His passions include conservation and wildlife biology.

Author: Dr. Arunachalam Kumar- India

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