Veteran photo-journalist T.S. Nagarajan’s labour of love took him into several ancestral homes.

It’s a journey undertaken through many lifetimes.

The images in this collection of photographs taken by T.S. Nagarajan are like montages of a remembered past. They come back like snatches of old songs that are embedded in the collective consciousness of those early black-and-white films made by the great veterans of cinema; or flutter in a dark corner like the gold-bordered sari worn by a once-beautiful woman; or conjure a vivid tang of freshly ground spices in a village kitchen along the desert contours of Rajasthan or Gujarat where women still prepare their everyday meals by hand.

Nagarajan has entered the labyrinth of a nation soul’s in his portraits of everyday life as it used to be lived in the homes of people as diverse as the Namboodris of Kerala, the grandees of Goa, the Westernised Bengali intellectuals of Kolkata, the stylish Parsis of Western India, the well-documented merchant princes of Chettinad and Rajasthan, as well as the more austere dwellings of the people of Kutch.

Equally arresting is the way in which editors Umaima Mulla Feroze, Gita Simoes and graphic designer Avadhut Parsekar have converted the images taken over 20 years of rambling journeys with notes scribbled by Nagarajan on the spot into a work of art. You actually open a door to enter the book. The cover has the image of a door with a young child waiting to enter a home somewhere in Varanasi as the mother looks on tenderly. The borders of the book are edged with silver, as you might find in a door to a temple. This is not, however, a book about temples and palaces. It is about people, some of them priests, some princes, some clerks, but most of them householders who live in their homes. It is in evoking a way of life that may have disappeared already that the book creates a sense of community, with people we might have almost known but don’t really remember anymore.

In documenting the past through his lens, Nagarajan set himself a simple enough task. He would look for homes that had been built a hundred years or more ago. Or those that due to a decline in the way of life of a new generation were on the cusp of change as the younger members moved away and the older folk were left in the dark recesses of their homes with only ancestral portraits, gods and mementos of a richly perceived inner life to occupy them. It’s interesting that the only relatively modern source of entertainment that one finds in the book is a transistor radio that a young priest holds in his hands in his crowded single-room home in Varanasi.

The idea that we are all travellers traversing the sub-continent with our goods and chattels strapped to our backs, metaphorically of course, or that every Indian family group was once part of a migratory tribe that carried the badges of its identity in its lifestyle, appears to have some echo in Nagarajan’s images. Some of his interiors are made of the barest of floors, the starkest of walls and a forest of pillars for company. Yet, there is a tremendous sense of belonging even there.

The ailing Nagarajan replied to a few questions that were mailed to him. Excerpts:

If you could, which place would you like to re-visit from among all the old homes you photographed?

Images of Kerala’s most famous Namboodiri Illum (Olappamanna Mana) keep coming back to me. The philosophy of its architecture is unique and very meditative. Sitting alone in the evening on the black shining floor in one of its halls lit by huge flickering oil lamps, one could only think of how transient life is and not about how good a picture it made. If this were possible, I would have liked to spend whatever remains of my life living in it.

How did you get the people to be such an intimate part of your compositions?

I made it a point to spend considerable time with the residents before I set up the camera. Having my wife Meenakshi with me made a world of difference. As for language difficulty, I could manage most of the time, and a local contact was always there to help. In places like Pondicherry and Goa, I sometimes had to have French and Portuguese speaking friends with me. When the house owners agree to let you in, they trust you totally, and go all out to help.

There is a lot of emphasis on ‘beauty’ in your interiors. Is that a quality that you found in the interiors, or did you create it through a play of light and shadow?

In most cases, every part of the home had its own beauty. Of course, I had to be sensitive to light and use it to enhance its impact. This is what took time. For example, in the Hindu mansion of Deshaprabhu Home in Pernem, after going through the house, I decided that the beautiful chairs in the drawing room represented the kind of old-world charm I was looking for. I was there in the morning. The lighting in the room didn’t help the picture in any way. I had to shoot only around 4 pm. I put off shooting for a later day, travelled back from where I was staying 25 km away, and took just that single picture that day. One needs to strive for ideal lighting. After all, ultimately, it is the light that presents the picture.

Is there a perfect time of day for when you shoot, or does that depend on the situation?

Since most of my images are inside homes, the time varies from picture to picture. Most of my pictures are taken in available natural light demanding long exposures. One of my pictures needed one full minute’s exposure with the camera on a tripod because it was pouring outside. Only soft and reflected light filtered through the open spaces. But the image required that quality of light.

The technical questions: what camera did you use? Did you carry a lot of equipment or just a tripod?

I have done the entire project in black and white film, avoiding, most of the time, additional artificial light. The camera was invariably on a tripod. I had some half-a-dozen Nikon cameras and perhaps an equal number of special lenses. The wide-angle lens was the most used one — 24mm or 28mm. When you use wide-angle lens, keeping the vertical and horizontal lines perfect becomes very important. So, it takes quite some time to set up the shot.

Vanishing Homes of India by T.S. Nagarajan has been published by the HECAR Foundation. The large-format B&W photographs cover 142 pages. Price: Rs. 3,000.