The Great War on Facades by Rene Magritte
Courtesy - http://drunkenmusings.blogspot.com

The past weekend was too frenzied for my liking. At my energetic best I manage to potter around, but usually, remaining in a python-like state is the norm. This particular weekend however was thrown out-of-gear by an email from my editor.

She wanted my photo along with a short bio for their catalogue. There’s really nothing much to say about myself, so the short bio was not a problem. But the photo is an insurmountable problem. I did ask her if I can send a Pink Panther picture – but there was no response from her. I guess she is the silent, sombre type and finds such emails extremely frivolous.

Anyway, I knew this could not be a ‘passport’ type photo as my friend terms it. It had to be more classy, as befits an author, even if the said author is below average. So I looked up some author photos to get an idea. My heart sank. Each author looked more exotic than the next.

Some looked into the camera: wide-eyed innocence; chiselled chin; arched eyebrows; an alluring movement caught in the ringlets of the well styled hair. Some others looked away – staring at an unseen object in the distance – a thinker’s face with that well-practised frown, the painted, parted lips, the sheen of velvet hair tucked behind solitaire-bejewelled ears. Some others stood leaning against a wall – a nonchalant bored look, what I call as the blowing-at-the-smoking-gun-after-a-shoot-out cowboy look. They’ve all had awards under their belts – I’ve neither heard of the authors (my problem), nor the awards (again, my problem). They’ve all written serious books with clever, clever titles that don’t give away the genre of the book – you know, titles that go ‘Mangoes, Jackfruits and Pineapples’ and such like.

Oh well, I thought I’ll give it my best shot. I mean if one aims for the stars, at least one can land on the tree-top right? Why this fuss you ask? It’s just a photo, isn’t it? Well, I have a strange affliction. When my photos are clicked unexpectedly, my face is ‘normal’. The minute I have to ‘pose’ strange things happen. A frown appears, I get what Amma used to call as ‘floating’ eyes, and the ‘say cheese’ moment comes out as a grimace. Innumerable photos have been wasted because of these facial distortions.

There was only one photographer who had some kind of a magic wand. He would act with lightning speed and click the photos before the contortions started. He was an old man who had a quirky studio in Malleswaram Sampige Road. As far as I know, he’d been around for ages. His ‘Vikas Studio’ was there even way back in the late sixties and early seventies I suppose, because Appa’s and Amma’s photos before and after their wedding was taken in his studio. It was in his studio that The Sister and I had the mandatory ‘moggina jade’ photos taken.

‘Vikas Studio’ stood diagonally opposite to Shankar ‘circulating library’ if I remember correctly. The entrance to this studio was really a hole in the wall. As soon as you put your head inside the dark crevice of an opening, you’d see a questionable spiral staircase, as tightly coiled as a DNA strand, circling its way up to the first floor where the studio operated.

I somehow used to find the studio cheerful and serene in a strange, timeless way. The ‘reception’ area was just a table where photos bundled in rubber-bands were piled up. The walls were decorated with photos of chubby babies. I also remember Hema Malini and Vijayanathi Mala posters. The photographer was a middle-aged gent, with a kind face and kinder voice. He was disabled and it was humbling to watch him go about his business with such finesse. When there were no clients, he would sit on a foldable aluminium chair in the balcony overlooking the Sampige Road, and just watch the world go by.

The studio was separated by the ‘reception’ area by a plywood wall, covered with a thick indigo-hued curtain. A stout stool in the centre of the studio was the place for us to sit. Behind the chair were several rolled up ‘screens’. For kids dressed as Krishna, a screen with the picture of ambling, happy cows and the Govardhana mountain was rolled out. For honeymoon couples, it was always the Taj Mahal. For ‘eligible’ bachelor photos – the boys stood in front of a disproportionate Eiffel Tower. But they also had a physical prop – an ornate pedestal made of plaster of paris. The boys leaned against the pedestal in Dr. Rajkumar and Shankar Nag poses for maximum effect. If required, they could also don a 'suit' coat and 'cooling glasses' freely available in the studio. The single ladies however, sat on the stool with peacocks flying in the background screen.

I usually went to Vikas studio for ‘passport size’ photos. The kind man would shuffle around and ask me to sit on the stool. He would adjust his strobe lights and tell me, ‘Can you look at the red bulb above the door? Hmmm? I will just study the angles hmmm?’ And so I would smile and nod my head and look at the bulb. Click! Before I realized the photo would be taken. And that was the trick! He was such a genius. He knew most people became hopelessly self-conscious when they looked at a camera. So he would catch them off-guard – make them look elsewhere – an angle he’d probably studied well in advance. I don’t know if Vikas studio survived the onslaught of G.K. Vale and other digital villains. How I wished I could walk into the studio for an ‘author shot’.

But I did the next best thing. I shot off a message to a photographer friend for some tips. She asked me to make use of the ambient light and a table lamp covered with a white cloth for my primary light sources. I read up some articles on portrait photography. But I faced a bigger challenge. The photographer had to be The Husband.

The Husband is a man who understands profit and loss; revenue and expense. Angles and Shadows – he cared not. But I had to try. I explained what my friend had instructed. The Husband nodded sagely.

Then we walked around our small flat to find a good spot where the light can be flattering. We do have table lamps and floor lamps. But they had been placed with precision by the landlady’s interior decorators. I had to pop out from behind the bed when he said ‘say cheese’. Or I had to crouch between the sofa and the floor lamp. After some acrobatics, I decided standing next to a window is good enough. Then I could do post production work - give it a black and white effect to make me look intelligent.

I stood next to a window. Should I lean and rest my head against the window? Give a ‘far away’ look? No! No! That would be too Meena Kumari tragic look. I had to be charming and cool. So I finally assumed a pose.

‘Why are you standing like Swami Vivekananda?’ The Husband asked. ‘Just relax.’

That’s the problem. What do you do with the hands? The 101 tutorials said ‘a model relaxes with a prop.’ Maybe I should pretend reading a book. Or how about smelling a rose? Arrrghh! Too daft.

By then, the ambient light had started fading. I quickly assumed another pose. The Husband agreed it was ‘cool’ – but I had my suspicions – his smirk was a dead giveaway. Once he took the photo I checked it out. OH NO!! FLOATING EYES! Of course...I should have expected it. I had hardly slept the previous night – Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters had gripped me. And I had missed my afternoon siesta. Taking a photo was now out of question. The floating eyes would go only if I had a healthy doze of sleep – but that would mean I would be attacked by the Puffy Eyes.

But I had foreseen this possibility. I had a reasonably ‘normal’ photo taken a couple of years ago – only problem was because of the ‘yellow’ overhead lights, it looked like I had carotenemia. My friend had Photoshop – she said she could ‘correct’ the colour. And she did a great job. I mean I’ve never had such glowing skin – a skin I possessed only as a 2 month baby I suppose. I told her she had put me in a ‘dharmasankata’ – a moral dilemma. Should I share this ‘false’ one...with the well-combed hair and rosy cheeks? Or another one that is a more honest depiction? One where the nose stands out like a prehistoric monolithic pillar and the hair is Masai Mara lion-like?

It’s too tiresome to decide, especially when my choice is neither. My choice really is to remain faceless. Why should anyone know what I look like to enjoy (or curse) what I write? If they insist, perhaps I will modify The Great War on Facades by Rene Magritte. Yeah...that's a good idea.

© Sumana Khan - 2012


  1. Nostalgic.. reminded me of the D Ratan studio in calcutta...humorous and nice.

    1. Thank you Aspriha:) Welcome to Kaapizone.


  2. First of all,congratulations on becoming an author :-)

    LOL at the Swami Vivekanand pose. What are floating eyes, though?

    My favourite author pics are those in which the author gazes at the camera with just the hint of a smile, a la Jhumpa Lahiri or Siddhartha Banerjee (of The Emperor Of Maladies fame)but I understand one has to be really photogenic to pull it off with ease. For those who are camera-conscious, a side profile, preferable back and white,should work well I think :-)

    1. Scribblehappy..side profile is a big no no. My family is known for hawk noses LOL! I agree abt B&W being the best choice!

    2. Oops,I meant to write Siddhartha Mukherjee. I know someone called Sid Banerjee in real life, so I guess it could have been a Freudian slip ;-)

      Oops, oops, another typo in the last line--it should be preferably,not preferable. Aren't you glad I am not your editor;-)

  3. Shall I send you my photo? I don't mind being on the cover of a book :P

    1. Jolly...now there's an idea. Considering the brickbats it is likely to attract...heh heh heh

  4. Photoshop always comes to the rescue in the end. :)

    1. i agree! But I did not send out any photos...let's see what they have to say.

  5. Haha I was photograph-phobic too. I hated being photographed, I am even now. But back then my pics would actually come out pretty bad. Now I can say I get pretty decent pics of myself. I've lost most of the self-consciousness in front of the camera. In the end you are right not to put a pic on the cover, readers will be eager to see ur face on newspapers, magazines etc ;) If I like a book, I would be curious about the author too. If I dont I couldn't care less how he/she looks. Doesn't matter anyways :)

    1. I believe Margaret Mitchell (gone with the wind) was so overwhelmed by the success of her classic...she was terrified of all the attention and literally locked herself up to escape attention!

  6. I came across these words posted by a friend and felt I had to share it with you as they so aptly describe the kind of emotions many of your posts evoke in so many of us. I have this same feeling while reading R K Narayan's books and certain posts from some other blogs, as well. :)
    "The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out and taken yours." - Hector, The History Boys.

    1. so, so sweet! Thank you for such a wonderful compliment!


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