Re-creation, or The Tricks that Minds Play

Have you ever forgotten about the existence of a memory but acted on it? I think that’s what I did on Friday evening when I broke three eggs together into a bowl, dropped a few cleaned prawns into it, shook a few balls of pepper and a spoonful of mixed dried herbs over it, and then beat it together. I took out my trusty steamer and put the bowl into it. A little thought, then I realized that I’ve used this bowl in an oven at 200 C, so it should be okay with steam. Another pause, and I decided to cover the bowl with a plate to prevent steam from dripping into it. Then a seven minute steam bath, and my accompaniment to beer was ready. The Family tasted it and asked “How did you think this up?”

I had to think in order to answer. And I realized that this dish had stuck in my memory ever since I had dinner with two younger Indian colleagues in 2019 in Wuhan. I’d even written about it, and then completely (or not quite completely) forgotten about it. Among the several things we’d asked for, this “stew” had completely surprised me with its lovely custardly consistency and its fishy taste. Later I dug up this photo and realized that it must have been flavoured with fish sauce and some broth. I had lost the memory of the memory, but not the memory of the taste, and it had haunted me until I re-created it unknowingly. Now I recall the name (蒸蛋羹, zhēng dàngēng, ie, steamed egg tart, or 蒸水蛋, zhēng shuǐ dàn, ie, steamed water egg) have to look for recipes and try again.

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

The circles of my life

One exposure lasts about a hundredth of a second. Maybe ten times longer. Perhaps ten times shorter. But the objects that are captured by the motion of electrons in the sensor may have lasted a century. That is 300,000,000,000 times longer, give or take a zero. Does it matter if the thing you are photographing is a thousand years old instead? Or only a decade old? Just give or take a zero at the end of those 11 others.

I saw a bubble released by a child, undulating across the sky, trying to achieve that perfect spherical shape in the short life time that it had. Was its shape more important than the shimmer of colour across its surface?

A scatter of painted oil drums outside an artist’s studio was a work in progress. Did I steal his work, misappropriate it by taking a photo before he could pin down his own vision? Would it have been morally different if I’d waited a few years and then taken a photograph which imposed my vision over his?

Catherine Opie said that sunsets and sunrises are the biggest cliches in photography. Ansel Adams said that a good photo is knowing where to stand. Henri Cartier-Bresson said sharpness is a bourgeois concept. David Lynch said that no matter what you mean, everyone is going to get something different from it.

Is an eclipse the shadow of one sphere passing over another? Or is it a rabbit being swallowed by a snake? In your imagination does it matter which is true? Nothing is written in stone, is it?

These photos were taken over three years and six thousand kilometers: a fraction of my life. They share one quality. They are inanimate circular objects which seemed beautiful to me at the time I took the photos. Now I wonder what I captured, the object, or the state of my mind?

The art of photography

Many blogs and web sites teach you the craft of photography: focus, aperture, rule of thirds, leading lines. The art is something we have to puzzle out for ourselves. At some point I realized that one aspect of the art is not to show what you want people to see, but what you want people to feel. If it is a sense of peace and serenity that you are after, hide the details. Show fog.

We were off early in the morning to grab a hot paratha at a bazaar which had sprung up at a road crossing. The sun broke through the mist as we passed by Almora and hit the forest just beyond. Beautiful sight. As I took this photo, I knew it would convey a sense of calm and peace. The sense of rush, the craving for breakfast, that was my own. It did not express itself in the photo.

The Pearl river delta cuts up the southern coast of China into islets. The mega city of Guangzhou sprawls across it. From the top of Canton Tower I took a photo which shows Guangzhou at its calmest: the hour of sunset. Barges pass along the river, evoking a certain timelessness, which the misty look enhances. Guangzhou has the same weather as Mumbai, warm. What you see is not mist, but the sense the photo evokes is still calm. Hide the hurry, and everyone thinks things are calm.

This was a morning when I was calm and content. Sitting on the deck of a hotel floating on the warm waters of Lake Inle in Myanmar, I was thoroughly relaxed. A chai in hand, camera at my feet, I wondered how to convey that sense. Evoke fog, my head told me. So I took a reflection of the clouds in the waters of the lake, broken by the lily pads that grow around the hotel.

Annoyed? No one will know. A day of bird watching in the mountains of Darjeeling district was interrupted by fog. The only things I saw were drongos, too quick to photograph in the bad light. But this barred jungle owlet (Glaucidium radiatum) sat placidly in front of me and preened. You want calm and serene? Take photos of an owl. Better still, one of an owl in fog.

I had come down from the Philosopher’s Walk, crossed the Neckar, and was making my way to Heidelberg’s railway station. I had to get a coffee and a roll before my train rolled in. I was in a bit of a hurry, and sweating mildly under my layers of warm clothes. But the tree on the other bank looked wonderful. A pair of European Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) flew by as I took this photo. Lazy, calm, gliding circles, quite unusual for this squabbling and greedy species. That’s all you see here, not my need for a coffee. The art of photography is to exclude yourself and your own momentary feelings from the image, to retain only what you want to remember after many years.

Cross culture

Court art in Kutch is said to have started suddenly in the mid-18th century, perhaps during the reign of Rao Lakhpatji. This connected with the collection that I saw in Aaina Mahal in Bhuj. One interesting set was called reverse glass paintings. As I understood, the painting is made on a sheet of extremely thin glass, and is meant to be viewed from the clear side. According to the information posted in the museum, businessmen from Kutch who traveled to China in the 18th century brought back the first examples and presented some to the Rao. Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Guangzhou were specifically named as sources. Little has been written about art in the court of Kutch, and this set of paintings raises multiple questions.

The note in the museum says that businessmen began to commission portraits and mythological scenes. There are only a few of these on view. The features of people have Chinese characteristics, but the clothes and jewellery, even colour schemes, are similar to what you see in Kutchi paintings of that time. I wonder whether there are Chinese records of these paintings, or records (on either side) of the commissioning and execution of some of these paintings. There is a forgotten history here which some one needs to investigate. The context of the paintings reminded me of later Patna miniatures, painted in the Mughal style but featuring English men and women who commissioned them, wearing the formal clothes of the 19th century.

It is hard to photograph these paintings. They are displayed in a tiny room with bright lights which create multiple highlights on the surface. Some of the paintings are clearly damaged. But they are so very interesting that I hope a museum or two undertakes to bring them to a wider audience temporarily.

Flea and tea

My first unfiltered experience of China came one morning, ten years ago, when I walked through a flea market to reach a tea market. The flea market was the usual hotch potch of things, perfect for a quick look inside Chinese homes. Jade bracelets were laid out with bottles, jars, vases, and a very personable pig carved out of wood. If I had the weight allowance, I might have bought the pig right there.

In another aisle a middle-aged man sat with his collection of Mao memorabilia. The modern era of instant translation had not yet struck, and I hadn’t picked up even the smattering of Mandarin that I did later, so our communication was the age-old language of gestures and acting. You lose nuances in this language, but one meaning that came through was that some of the things he was selling was his own. There were a few medals with Mao’s face on it. A forty-odd years old man would have been in his early teens when Mao died, so I didn’t see how he could have won the medal. Maybe it was a family heirloom. Clearly there was a market for it even in the new China.

But most of the things put out for sale seemed to be more traditional. The small towns of India are full of little museums in forgotten mansions built by 19th century traders who found their riches in the trade with Shanghai and Guangzhou. Their display cases contained richer and more decorative versions of the things I saw. These “singing bowls” were quite a draw. Filled with water, you could set them vibrating with a clean high pitch when you drew your palms rapidly across their lip. I was shown how to do it.

I’d spent half an hour wandering around the market, and on the way out I stopped to take a photo of this celadon plate with a dragon winding around it. Later I would have the references to compare them with. Now I look at it and think it wasn’t a bad piece at all.

On to the tea market. I have no memory of what I’d imagined it to be, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling maze of an indoor market that it actually was. There were more salespeople than customers at that time on a weekday morning. I suspect that in a market as big as that, it might be true at all times of every day. I peeked in through the open doors of every shop. Rows of crates, full of loose leaf tea, and shelves filled with packed teas and tea paraphernalia. That was the layout of each shop. And people sitting and picking through trays of tea leaves.

My favourite photo from that day is of this long narrow stall. Near the open door was a white cockatoo. The man sitting there paid us no attention as we walked by. Later, gawking done, I came back to this shop to buy tea. It was deserted, but as soon as I walked in through the door, the cockatoo squawked, and an young man poked his head out of the inner door. He had no English, but called someone on a phone. A trapdoor in the ceiling opened, and an English-speaking helper dropped into the shop. That was an eventful way to buy enough tea to last me a year.

My world in mid-July

2006: Kashmiri chili

A response to a challenge by a Lens Artist needed some thought. A response needed me to show you my world. I decided to select a picture from each year, as close to mid-July as I can get. Usually the monsoon is at its heaviest in mid-July, which lets me show a season I love. I stayed home some years. In others I traveled. I see that this is a fair picture of what I spend my time on. The series spans the period from 2006, which is represented by the featured photo, to the hard lockdown of 2020.

As always, click on any photo to get to the gallery.

Crowds

Do you remember 2019? People used to hang around in crowds, and look happy.

Mumbai
Goreme
Nairobi
Istanbul
Bharatpur

In retrospect the featured photo is specially poignant. It was taken in Wuhan, at a time when the virus had already begun to circulate, but no one recognized it for what it would go on to do.

On that note I take a blogging break of around two weeks.

Kolkata style Hakka noodles

“Didn’t you want to take a photo?” The Family asked after we’d nearly finished eating our plates of the Kolkata style Hakka noodles which I’d whipped together. Indeed I did. So I dug up the smallest plate I could find, and scraped the last remaining bits off the dish into it for the featured photo. After all, a blog about food is no good without a photo of the food. But then, does a photo with three strands of broken noodles make a good introduction to a blog about noodles? Or is it a little like introducing Hakka people and their culture with a dish that many Indians now associate with Kolkata?

The recipe is simple and quick, as any street food should be. Boil and cool the egg noodles. In a kadhai fry some onions and garlic, and drop the prawns into it. When the prawns are nearly done, add the finely chopped green and red capsicum into it, tomatoes if you like, green beans if you are fond of them, and, finally, a green chili slit lengthwise. All this is done quickly and at high heat, as a stir fry. Now, into the sizzling hot kadhai drop a generous splash of dark soya sauce and, immediately, the noodles. Toss them around, making sure that they smoke and burn just that little bit to add the authentic taste of Kolkata’s eclectic street food tradition. Top it off with a garnish of chopped spring onion. Street food is best if it is served immediately.

The addition of green chili, generous amounts of fried onions and garlic, are Indianization of the cuisine. The Hakka settlers, possibly from the Fujian and Guangdong provinces of China, arrived in the late 18th century CE as traders and labourers to the then-thriving entrepot of Kolkata. They were followed by waves of other Chinese immigrants, whose traces you can find in the Cantonese and Szechuan additions to Indian-Chinese food. I haven’t had Hakka food in China, so I have no idea how closely the Indian Hakka noodles hew to the original. In my student days, weekend trips to Kolkata wouldn’t be complete without visits to the Chinatown in Tangra. Those gave me the impression that the food could be reasonably authentic. I did not realize then that the bustling Chinatown was already a shadow of what it was in the days before the Indo-China war of 1962, and would be largely a memory by the 21st century.

I see the last of the Kolkata and Mumbai Chinese when I visit my favourite Chinese restaurants. Young members of the family have no connection with China; they speak English and Bengali. Now and then you see a visiting Chinese businessman or tourist who would like authentic home style food. An old matriarch will then appear and try to communicate with the customer in her broken Hakka or Cantonese. If you continue to pay attention to such a table, you will notice the eventual appearance of whole steamed fish, stir fried greens, and bowls of rice, not at all what we Indians love to eat in a Chinese restaurant.

History is a door

It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.

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