The time warp of old class photographs

The time warp of old class photographs

By SUMANA ROY | 17 October, 2015

Ever since photographs replaced family lore as the more authentic archive of our childhoods, things have become slightly difficult for lovers. A question is bound to greet them during the how-much-do-you-love-me tests that come in instalments: a photograph of little kids, once black and white, now increasingly in colour, standing or sitting in rows, this architecture of little people around the person in the centre who sits with his or her hands folded into a Swami Vivekananda-like posture, the only difference being in the directness of gaze at the camera. Everyone in this photograph is unknown to you, and in hard copy, without the benefit of “zooming in”, it is difficult to tell one face from the other, even a boy from a girl, except from the shorts and tunic. This is a genre that now lives in all family albums: The Class Photograph.
I do not know what these photographs were meant to achieve, I was too young to understand these moments as part of the memory manufacturing technology, but what I did know was that I hated standing with my hands folded in the second row. For the first few years, when the girl-boy ratio in our class was lopsided — the girls constituting only about one-third of the number of students in the class — I got to sit on a bench in the front row. There were, in fact, two benches, emanating from the left and right of the teacher on a chair, like two elongated hands that could hold us all. In middle school, the number of girls had increased, and so the taller among us were moved to the second row.
How it had come to be decided that the girls would sit in the front row and the boys stand behind them we did not dare to ask the teacher or the photographer. Of course I did not realise it then, but it was a harbinger of things to come. The woman at the “front desk”, the prettiness quotient determining her position in the office architecture — all this struck me much later. But why did it not strike our teachers? I ask my mother, who was a school teacher and who sits in the middle of many such photographs, whether it did not strike her as odd that the girls should sit and their male classmates stand behind them. It didn’t, she says, and then offers the standard colloquial: boys are stronger than girls, they can stand in the sun for a longer period of time and so on.
These thoughts came to me as I read Usha Akella’s poem, Kindergarten Class Photograph.
Where could they be —
the boy scratching his neck,
the girl with curls light as a halo,
finger in her mouth,
the happy girl in the back with a headband
smiling and not looking into the camera,
the boy seated on the grass, royal as a nawab
on a lush carpet and invisible bolsters?
Of two destinies I know,
twenty years later,
a reticent boy in the back
will end his life on an American highway,
did he shyly walk into
death, hesitant and sincere?
In the mail to us, a postcard
announcing the thirteenth day death ceremonies,
for years we will see his mother’s eyes burn
with a strength too much to bear.

Where, indeed, are the little people of these photographs? Facebook, with its accent on the visual, has made it easy to find these missing people, so that we often encounter such photos in our newsfeed, the multitude of name tags and the consequent click on the pages of these individual people showing how big-small the world is. For John Donne, the “little roome” was an “everywhere”. Akella’s poem and the Facebook photos with tags of people now spread all over the globe are evidence of the centrifugality of movement that characterises our lives today.

I ask my mother, who was a school teacher and who sits in the middle of many such photographs, whether it did not strike her as odd that the girls should sit and their male classmates stand behind them. It didn’t, she says.

The Class Photograph now has its extension, perhaps its binary, in the Reunion Photograph, the two together immediately abetting a comparative chart of how one was and how one is, a version of Blakean Innocence versus Experience playing out visually. I find that some comments, and this is not on Facebook alone but also outside it, quite generic: “You look the same as you did at 16” comes often to women, I find. I’ve always wondered how that could be a compliment, the wide-eyed view of the world versus the mark of wisdom on the face and being, but that is the stuff of another story.
What kind of rasa is the Class Photograph meant to evoke then? This, a bureaucratic exercise, of head and face counting as it were, evolves into a semi-totem of belonging, and then later, with the arrival of adulthood, a flag of nostalgia. Is the Class Photograph a happy photograph then? In Usha Akella’s poem, “twenty years later,/ a reticent boy in the back/ will end his life on an American highway”. Middle age has turned the Class Photograph into a thing seeped with dukkha rasa. As one of my oldest teachers from school told me recently, “I don’t look at these class photographs anymore. I am alive, but so many of my students have died untimely deaths. I am like an old tree watching leaves fall. They leave me sad.”
Now I only see how none of us show our laughing teeth in the Class Photograph.

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