A Tented Image

It was not many decades ago that I was shot but since I live to tell the tale, it is only fair to reveal  that the weapon of assault was a grumpy black box sporting a round lens on one end and a black tent on the other, mounted on wooden legs. Mistake me not; it was a long-lasting embarrassment rather than a moment of glory for a heart not yet ten years old. Of course, I had never heard of Ansel Adams and his view-cameras then, nor were Yosemite or Yellowstone Park part of my geographical ken.

Recalling it all, I vividly remember the fidgety man, often found lurking with his contraption near the old primary school. Monochrome mugs of matinee idols hung to its sides like a spider’s web, seducing the next victim.  A tall red stool to perch the subjects stood close like a faithful sidekick. It was a rewarding experience to watch him crouching into that tent, buried above waist, his head scandalously prying the backside of the instrument. Half way through his veiled voodoo, a hand would slowly slither out to signal the subject to freeze. Digging himself out after a few more minutes he’d produce a pale square card bearing approximate shapes of the bemused customers. There would be often a shriek of disbelief, or a sharp gasp from a woman, to be followed by a prolonged debate about the ownership of the face. It would invariably leave me wondering how some people could allow such things to happen to them, unless they were country toads come to roam the city, buy t-shirts and bell-bottomed-trousers and watch Bobby in air-cooled talkies.

The man was a roadside photographer, I learnt soon, and better acknowledged as the Jhatpatwallah. And like most things associated with streets, a brush with him wasn’t flattering to one’s reputation. Discerning folks just stepped in ‘New Bombay Studio’ or the fashionably expensive ‘RK Arts’ to get their portraits or passport-sized photographs done.  Nobody was sure what this pedestrian artist did under that tent and whether indeed he shot images as he claimed.  Maybe he had a bunch of old photographs stacked up somewhere in that wooden box and all he did was to pry out the closest match of the unsuspecting customer. Why else someone need a hood?

Admittedly however, Jhatpatwallah was known to deliver quick results. Also, he seemed to be the sole answer to the photographic pursuits of the less fortunate. Like the boy in the dimmer section of my old school who had to be shot by him for the school identity-card when he lost the bunch he had received from a studio. It turned out to be the lad’s ticket to infamy in the aftermath of which no one dared exchange pleasantries with him for an entire year!

I had been recently moved to a new school that was a fair distance from home and it was unanimously decided to get a monthly pass of the State Transport bus service for me. Our all-knowing Leninist neighbour Mr Chatterji, who’d rather have me walk down every day, hinted darkly that a photograph may be needed for a pass. Father had an urgent business in Lucknow and since he was leaving the same day as the school opened, he thought it important to resolve my transport woes quickly. Off we went to New Bombay Studio, little suspecting the drama that would unfold soon. The guy there looked at me balefully, shaking his head like a sage. There was no way he could deliver a photograph in one day unless we were willing to pay the cost of an entire roll of negatives. Father, being the sensible man he was, quickly ruled out the possibility. We must use the services of a roadside photographer in that case, he pronounced. I couldn’t believe what was happening! A dull whine started escaping my throat but the two men remained impervious in their wisdom. Having summarily decided my fate, father led me out of the studio, holding my arm firmly. I did manage to register my feeble protest soon but it was brushed away quickly. What was there to a bus pass? No degrees of badly done photos were going to reduce the value of a document. Anyway, it was not going to show up on something critical like my school records, was it? The finality of having to perch on the red stool of Jhatpatwallah started to sink slowly in my fast fluttering heart.

My father found a rickshaw who agreed to take us just to the spot in question. Now, I was not one of those who buckled and remembered Gods when faced with a Mathematics test but prayers in such dire moments were quite in order. I squeezed my eyes hard and sent a wave of prayers begging for a sudden earthquake, a tempest, a cloud burst or a flash flood that would scuttle the plans of a determined father. The moron of a rickshaw puller drove as if possessed. Sadly but surely, the doom drew nearer and nearer. And before long, we were standing before the very man and his machine! Desperate, I changed the line of prayers: Please dear Gods, could you please stop everything human coming this way while a father watched the honour of his own progeny being disrobed by a quack-photographer!

I don’t remember well the fruits of my alternate prayer. And I don’t remember how long I had to sit on that bizarre red stool with clenched teeth and fists. I was advised to keep my eyes open for the session yet all I could see was a blur. But I could swear I had more than the regular share of spectators, what with women and girls joining in for good measure! And to confound the matters, the clown simply decided to vanish under his sack for an eternity. Eventually, he emerged grumbling incoherently, seriously upset about something.  After some truly long minutes, I set my sight on a sepia square from which a vaguely familiar primate stared back at me.

The mind was a whirlwind of questions. How many people had seen it happening? How many of them were known to me? Will that image remain pasted on my bus pass for as long as I lived? Raw emotions raged as we proceeded to the roadways office for the second leg of our operation. I was feeling a strange lightness in my head and either the road under my feet or my feet over the road had started wobbling. Soon we entered the pale brown office that urgently needed a whitewash. Weaving our way through a maze of ugly halls and corners, hauling up the dark, stained staircase, we arrived at the counter which offered to issue monthly passes. The small opening was shielded by a dull blue grill and a sour looking man sat behind it crushing beetle leaves in his tightly sealed mouth. Having heard out the urgency of our business, the man tilted his head to a side and puckering up his lips, enquired my details. He pulled out a yellow rectangular card from a rack and having filled the columns in a vicious scrawl, asked my father to pay an amount of Rupees twelve and fifty paisa. Father pushed in the change along with my freshly minted photograph through the grill. The man picked up the money and carefully arranged it in the drawer underneath. I could see a wicked smile quiver under his pursed lips as the man struggled to control his laughter at the sight of my photograph. But he just flicked it back to us with his nail, producing a guttural noise that said ‘no photographs were needed for children under twelve’.


  1. Did you ever consider that the…ahem…adoring crowd that gathered to watch you being… er… shot may have thought that you were someone really important? 😀

    1. Ha ha ha! Sudhagee, I was undergoing a cardiac stroke of sorts at the moment. The onlookers could have gone to hell for all I cared! 😀

  2. Fantastic writing, Umashankar. You have quite a way with words, and a delightful way of expressing yourself. This was superb humor. “It was not many decades ago that I was shot but since I live to tell the tale, it is only fair to reveal that the weapon of assault was a grumpy black box..” starts with a bang, and doesn’t let up till the riproaring finish! You have a fan! cheers

    1. Prateek, my long last friend! 😀 I’ve been fine by and large, dear. Where have you been? I’ve been missing you so! Thanks for liking my post.

  3. Hehehe…I knew it. I knew it the moment your neighbor gave you the information..:p. Be it a feeling, an expression, an experience, imagination, illusion, pain, guilt, humor, poetry, prose or a verse, who could pen it better? You left your mark.

  4. Great post ! Took me back so many decades. Yes, we didn’t need photos for every little thing those days. I too had a photoless bus pass. In the meanwhile, today , requirements rise to make use of every fancy technology available. And we still have the mysterious boxes under tents of a different kind…..

    Another time, another age.

    A little boy,
    mortified with the
    feminine gazes,
    sits uncomfortable
    with pursed lips
    and accusative eyes,
    wondering what lies
    inside the Big Black Box
    under the tent
    and what magic
    the man
    on the other side
    fiddles with
    to come up with
    that is a picture of him.
    (The little boy).

    the boy,
    little no more
    himself sits inside the Big Box,
    both him
    and the tent
    a bit smarter,
    covered with a
    dreaming and typing,
    one gem after another
    sometimes in sepia,
    sometimes in swarovski
    and sometimes
    in blinding technicolor.

    And so many sit,
    avidly speculating
    on the other side
    quizzically wondering,
    if he is clicking
    a photo,
    a poem,
    a story,
    or just having a good laugh at them all ……

      1. Superbly said, Suranga! I have actually told Umashankar that I have a feeling; there are lots of times that he is poking fun at us, but we are never able to find exactly where in the amazing web of his writing :).

    1. Suranga, I am humbled, indebted and honoured by the mesmerizing biography you spun in so few lines. The impish twist that you put towards the close is but your love for the blogger friend.

  5. You know something, your very line has a typical quirk in it which keeps the reader engaging and that’s what I like about your writing 🙂

    ha ha 😀 what an experience especially when it was not needed in the first place.

  6. I could quite picture that young boy, mortified that he was going to be clicked by that strange creature he had always dreaded. How come I never came across these Jhatpatwallahs? I always remembered being hauled up to studios where these crazy photographers with blinding lights and musty background sheets keep telling you over and over again: Smile, keep your eyes open; smile, keep your eyes open! I loved the end too. All the trouble for nothing. I couldn’t help smiling. Great writing as always!

    1. Bourgeois vs proletariat, Rachna? Ha ha ha! 😀 This was in Varanasi and I kept stumbling upon many of them right into 1980s! Not any more though. You have well described your own ordeals too. Many thanks for the compliments.

      1. I’ve never been to Varanasi and till 6th Standard I went through Agra, Meerut, Ahmedabad, Allahabad and subsequently Lucknow after which I came to Mumbai and the nomadic life halted for a few years. Perhaps, geography is the reason I never came across them or maybe I wasn’t as observant as you were ;-).

  7. Ha ha! What an embarrassing experience for a small boy! You’ve expressed the emotions of your younger self wonderfully!

  8. Is there anyone who can narrate a story, ever, better than this? I haven’t come accross such a person.
    I did imagine the jhutputwala, the tented black box, the stool, the rickshaw, ofcourse the little umashankar and each every thing you were mentioning about in this post Sir.
    Hats off. A standing ovation. My words fail in honoring your work. My apologies 🙂

    @ Suranga, speechless 🙂

    1. I am just a small hump, Mak. Keep walking and you will run into mountains. Million thanks for those kind words; the honour is mine.

  9. Delightful rendition of taking a photograph! Most associate a scary appointment with the dentist but this was really funny too. I hate taking new photographs even now knowing they will adorn various documents for eternity perhaps and still hang on to the 4-5 year old photo (in which I still look young and nicer :)). Once in there is so much suspense!, will I or won’t I look like I did in my old photo (which I usually never do!). Lovely telling.

    1. Thank you, Richa. I can well understand your dilemma! The profile shot that you see on this site comes from late 2010 and I already look decades older!

  10. That must have been on mortifying moment for you to recall it so vividly years later. And what a tale you spun around that simple incident! Agree with Suranga, especially her last line. 🙂

    Btw, do you happen to have that photo in your possession still? 😀

    1. Yes Zephyr, it was a mortifying moment and most of those things still playback like a reel in my mind! That photo went into my father’s pocket and he was a genius at losing things! 🙂

  11. oh yes, i liked the boys feelings.. it is so true when we actually put ourselves into his shoes..nice post sir.

    i too remember the days when my first passport size photos were taken, i cherish them even now.. the importance given to the photographer was way too much, but we cherish them even now.. now a days the digital camera have killed the fun. u click everything, just transfer them, and run them as screen saver and nothing more than that.. the good once just get into the FB account..

    1. I am so happy you felt for that boy, Ashreyamom! Little did we imagine that photography would become as uninteresting as scratching your head in the 21st century!

  12. Ha ha, after all that!
    You poor thing.
    I’m so glad you lived to tell the tale; such an entertaining one at that. What more, you are now the man on the other side of the machine. No prizes for guessing which side you like best, right? 🙂 Speaking of that, when do we get to see your next photo-post?

    Reading this post was such a pleasure. I’d seen your tweet, and thought I’d read this one after I was done with all my chores. Ah! That was some great bedtime reading :).

    1. Good that little boy is getting some sympathy after all! Of course I am loving this side of the river but it has been so quiet for some time now. Believe me, someday I’ll sell my ageing Suzuki Samurai and leave for Ladakh on a photography mission….

      God bless you for finding time for my silly tales!

  13. lai.. I would have made the most of it , as such no one wants to see me , So might as well flaunt it 🙂

    the picture reminded me of school , i was a hosteler so we had our annual pictures taken of the houses we belonged to , the man came with similar camera as in the pic.. and he would put his head under the black cloth and click click ..

    someone would should CHIDIYAAA FURRrrrrrrrr and everyone laughed and he would get so angry spoiling his pic , he has to take it again …

    1. Bikram, you are a chip of a block of granite and I am sure you’d have done just as you say! I was more like a sand dune. I loved that hilarious account of Chidiya Furrr!

  14. after numerous requests, you finally wrote a humor post :D. this post has little bit of everything, was laughing all the while. did you guys have instant photographs back in those days?

    a super duper post!!! long live One grain amongst the storm!!

    apologies for the late visit, was waiting at indivine

    1. I am not sure whether I’ve delivered, Deb. Something I read about a view-camera somewhere triggered the memory. And that is a gorgeous profile shot you have!

      Thank you for the iridescent burst of compliments. 😀 One Grain Amongst the Storm does need patrons like Deb for a long life!

  15. Very interesting narrative umashankar. Every person has their own unique way of narrating personal experiences. I really loved yours. In some ways your style reminded me of my own style but much better in terms of richness of language. Using rich language to narrate a mundane experience lends a eclectic humor to the whole thing. I am also inspired to narrated my travails with photographers.

    1. TF, I am honoured to receive such a compliment from a wordsmith like you. Million thanks to you! I’ll wait for your own travails with photographers to appear at Lucifer House Inc.

  16. Ironical, just as I return home and log in after getting clicked in a dingy small studio….sau ki aaath copies madam….I get to read this amazing post. Father was aghast at the sight of his progeny being disrobed by a quack photographer…ha ha…The starting was beautiful….memorable.,

    1. What a coincidence! These sau ki aaath morons are just those Jhatpatwallahs in their modern avatars.

      Your kind words keep this small scribe going! Many thanks to you.

  17. Having suffered from similar insecurities/anxieties/ignominies/torments during my own childhood, I know exactly how you must have felt…..It’s a small irony that you have become such an avid and accomplished photographer yourself (and thanks for passing on that photography bug !)

    1. Thanks for identifying with my torments! I agree, it feels a lot nicer being on the better side of the box. Thanks for liking the bug: it is going to make your life picturesque.

  18. Hilarious account of the ‘trick’ photography ! You have a way with words and it is such a treat to read your accounts in your weave of words.
    As Alka said ,Sau ki aath is a modern option but I feel that the chances of obtaining a decent snap are indirectly proportional to the urgency of the situation. I have about 3 sets of sau ki aath rendered useless as I look like a convict in all of them.

    1. Many thanks for the encouragement! I keep saying that photography is the hardest and the toughest thing to do. Most of those who run small studios, as also those shooting people’s images directly onto documents like driving licenses, passports etc, specialize in producing convict-like images of humble folks.

  19. Delightful!!! Vivid imagery and smooth flow made it such a pleasure to read what you had to go through just so you could write about it one day!! 🙂

    1. I am glad you enjoyed it, Deepak. Amusing that you think that I had to go through it so that I could write about it someday, but maybe what you say is perfectly in order! Thank you, so much.

  20. I could picture your agony at the hands of Jhatpatwala. Lovely post. Lovely writing.

  21. What a photographic tale! Looks like it has been etched in memory. I cant imagine the agony anyone could go through looking at that hidden guy under the black hood! A lovely anti-climax ending.


    1. Rahul, that is probably the default question the present day journalists are born with. Should that were to happen on that fateful day, you would have been watching the video and I trying to cover my face in a burqa!

  22. ROFL, Uma, as the current generation says! I think I’d better roll up my humor tent and fade away – cannot come close to this sort of humor writing!

    1. You humble me with your comment, Suresh. I also feel small when I read all those multi-layered marketing strategies crackling with humour at your blog. Many thanks to you for the encouragement.

  23. That was beautifully written.
    Sometimes I think that the fact that we can derive pleasure from such simplistic memories is what keeps us grounded.

  24. Ha ha ha.. 🙂 hilarious, wonderfully narrated, uplifting, spirits elevating.. 🙂 Loved it 😀

  25. LOL…That was a real treat!! Oh, I have met these jhatpatwalas…hehehe…and so could relate to the drama. Oh, what a post. Am still chuckling….:))

  26. I feel I am not even eligible to comment on such posts..whatever I will write it would be like ‘choti muh badi baat’..but such a wonderful wonderful post..wish some day I be able to write 1% of the way u write..loved every single second of reading..

  27. Ah USP,you have painted such a vivid picture of the whole project that i can see it in front of my eyes….poor you being subjected to what you felt was a great shame or humiliation….the ideas we have as kids–they are so quaint & lovable!!!!!!

  28. Lol ! I loved the way you narrated the post ..praying for earthquake …flood … ha ha ha … glad you lived to tell the tale 😉

  29. Hey Umashankar

    Life was so much more exciting back then, right? You committed social suicide and lived to tell the tale.

    Ha! Ha! Ha! Must have made a great sight.

    As kids we’ve had to suffer so many such inglorious assaults that threatened to shake our mental balance. The visit to the barber, being stripped down to be bathed in front of a boisterous and unruly audience made up of women and kids, who had to pass rowdy remarks.

    Being paraded like a circus animal in front of guests and ditto at a wedding .. “Beta, show Uncle how you do this?”, “Narrate that poem, Darling!”

    It’s a wonder that we’ve been able to maintain our sanity in spite of all that.

    But, we reap our revenge by returning the compliment to our kids!!! (Evil laughter!)

    Don’t you think that working in such dead-end jobs makes Government officials so sadistic – they get a vicious thrill out of heaping pain on the hapless citizenry.

    I enjoyed the flow of your tale a lot and the description of the old picture taking process, long disappeared – strangely some of those photos may survive us unlike the new technology machine processed ones.

    Our worst fears outlive us, don’t they?

    1. Ha ha ha! You have correctly added the parts at the barber’s, being bathed naked in public and paraded like a trained monkey! These have all triggered quite a few memories again but now I must head for work where a team from the masters is waiting for the ‘risk-focused annual inspection’! Thank you for those interesting observations and the support! 😀

  30. Wow ! That’s one masterpiece post . Loved it 🙂 ha ha . I had an English lesson called ‘with the photographer’ in class X . Got reminded of that . Awesome writing as always . Impeccable !

  31. You brought every single detail, character, object and emotion alive with your mesmerizing narrative. It was as if I saw you getting shot. In fact, it was even better. I haven’t seen anyone who has such a mastery of words and the way you weave them together to paint a picture so vivid and fascinating just amazes me. It was such a delight to read this incident of your life through your magical words. Sometimes when you read an incident, you wish you were a part of it. This one evoked such an emotion in me simply because of the way you narrated it.

    1. Raj, I am grateful to you for getting so deeply into the narrative. Thank you, for those words of honour; they keep my little scribbling heart going.

  32. Nice post I have been shot by them and have shot them too in one of my visits to Lucknow close to Vazirganj..the are the forgotten race of photographers eking out a living on the streets doing great service ,, but with the digital age they too will disappear .. to be remembered in some blogs like this or through my pictures shot of Lucknow city life..

    Thanks Take Care

  33. Really well written! That poor photographer, had he known would have asked you for royalty now that he is your hero , or should I say villain 🙂

    1. Ha ha! Also, as I said early in my post, I hadn’t heard of Ansel Adams then or else you’d have read an entirely different post!

  34. A fantastic post and hilarious too! Such a pleasant experience really to relive memories and even if they are not your own. You still find that they match yours at some juncture. I dont remember the photographers of my childhood the way you do but when I see the terrified expression I have in some of the photographs i am compelled to believe I must have been petrified of them

    1. Ha ha ha! I agree those photographers were intimidating both on and off the streets. I am happy my post touched a chord in you. Many thanks for the kind words.

  35. Your style of writing and stock of words is really fantastic. I just turned into a loyal follower of yours 😉 Bookmarking the blog right now 🙂

  36. I can relate to this story, Uma. I grew up in a family with several avid photographers: my father and my older brother. I remember many weekend afternoons that were spent under the eye of the camera. Their attention to detail, balance, composition, and lighting, left a visually stunning legacy that we continue to enjoy. I really enjoy your writing, too. You clearly love the aesthetics of the English language, its rhythm and flow. Sometimes, a single well-placed word is like a snapshot itself.

    1. Helena, it was a pleasure to learn about the family of photography aficionados. I can relate to their obsession.

      Many thanks for those kind words. Yes, I am in love with English!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: