The refusal

Every year around December, January or February the Dastkaar Haat (crafts bazaar) makes its appearance on the grounds of Kalakshetra, the dance school started by Rukmini Devi Arundale in South Chennai. It’s an open air market which stocks handmade and artisan items from all over India. It stays for around a week and then disappears. The newspapers announce its arrival and my friends and I wait for it eagerly to get stuff that you wouldn’t normally get here. In spite of its globe-totting citizens, Chennai sometimes has the air of a village.

I usually make more than one trip. So this year too I went twice. By now I can recognise the same faces who have travelled long to get here. It must seem strange to them to set up stalls on sand and sit and wait for customers, show their wares and then from time to time make a sale. This year was like the other years well attended. So I am sure they managed a profit. Obviously, some stalls were more popular than the others. This is also the time I exercise my Hindi! After leaving my last job, I haven’t got much practice in one of the national languages.

A favourite is tiger stall (that’s what I call it; it’s not the real name). That’s the Dastkaar Ranthambore from Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. There is always a crowd in front of it. They have perfected the tiger motif on a variety of household and personal items. What sets apart the stall from the others is the finish of their products. It is very well done. Most craft items have a bit – sometimes more – of unevenness because they are made by hand. But the products of this stall are nearly as good as say Fab India or Kalpa Druma.

While I weighed this jhola against that, Smart Aunty standing next to me video called her daughter in Singapore who sounded more annoyed than happy to show her the contents of the stall. There she stood like a director panning the camera. Annoyed Daughter chose a tiger motif razai (duvet) and promptly disconnected the call saying that baby is hungry and she needs to feed him. Smart Aunty waited patiently for her daughter to call back. I moved on.

My absolute favourite this year was the Ladakhi Jewellery stall. A weather-beaten man from the mountains who I later found out had sold sweaters in Malda, a district in Bengal, was selling typical Tibetian jewellery. Written on a simple yellow chart paper with no embellishment and in uneven hand board were the words ‘Ladakh Jewelry’. All the embellishment was left for the exotic (to my eyes) jewellery. I have been making some of my jewellery the past year but this was something else. I could feel the tradition and technique that must have taken long to develop. I fell in love with some of these pieces. As my friend would testify I went a bit berserk there. Each of those turquoise, coral, lapis lazuli necklaces stole my heart.

On my second visit, the atmosphere was electric. North Eastern folk dancers, Rajasthani musicians and puppeteers filled the air with music. But what caught my attention was this woman in traditional clothing. She was in charge of a stall selling cloth bags. But the bags were not half as interesting as she was. Her ink-black hair severely parted in the middle, the dupatta over her head, tonnes of jewellery and a wrinkled face.

There was no one at her stall. And for good reason: she looked formidable. She was definitely from a tribe in the west of India but I couldn’t guess the state. She drew me to her; I immediately had this feeling that I had to take her picture. For all my loquaciousness, I am a shy person. It took some nerve for me to walk up to her and ask her in Hindi if I could take her picture. She didn’t understand me. Next I repeated my request followed by the universal sign for taking a picture – an air click. She looked at my fingers and then she understood me. For a fleeting second, I thought she would agree. But no. She refused. In her refusal was this immense sense of weariness. Like I was the hundredth person asking for her photograph. There was a huge story here. Who knows how many people would have walked by her stall and asked for her picture? Who knows how many times she accepted? Who knows how many she refused? Who knows what unpleasant experience she had with a person who took her photograph before? In that refusal, I sensed the weight – and wait – of her days. It must be lonely to be so far away from home, sitting here in the middle of perhaps nowhere, selling things to make her living. We must all seem so alien to her. This picture taking business she must find unusual and weird. These boxes that we carry around and talk to and take pictures with must seem so far away from her world. Or perhaps she sensed that I was trying to exoticise her. I will be honest, I was. It is a response I am not too proud of. She could not perhaps articulate it but I am sure she knew the feeling. I was the self and she was the other. I was exoticising the other. That was so much like the Occidental response to the Orient. In refusing to let me take her picture, she refused to be a part of this interaction, refused to engage with me because it was solely on my terms. She may look traditional but her attitude was modern. I respected her wishes and immediately left. It was a relief to be refused. She has this intensity which made me hold my breath. Some people draw you to them by their intensity. As I moved out of the radius of her presence I relaxed and also felt a bit ashamed for having troubled her.

I don’t know how photographers ask for pictures and get people to agree. This incident has left an indelible mark on my mind. It will be a long time before I will ask anyone for their picture.

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