“Main kho jaani haan. Character vich vaad jaani haan,” said Indri. I get lost. I lose myself in the character.
For as long as Jasmeen Patheja can remember, she and her grandmother Inderjit Kaur have been playing dress up. Growing up in Kolkata, Patheja’s after-school activity involved playing dress up as a teacher, doctor or an astronaut, but some years ago, her grand mother “Indri”, as her on-screen persona is called, took to donning costumes and living out her fantasies of being an actor.
Patheja is the founder of Blank Noise, a community art collective that focuses on sexual violence and is responsible for many campaigns on the forms that sexual violence and street harassment can take. A graduate of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Patheja had always wanted to pursue photography.
It was while going through some old family albums that Patheja noticed the ease with which her grandmother posed for her portraits. With both granddaughter and grandmother looking to fulfil long-harboured desires, photographing Indri became an act of perfect collaboration. The result is a series of photographs of Kaur as she transforms into a queen, a fairy, an opera performer, and a scientist called Dr Indri Pickle, who breaks down the formula for the perfect mango pickle.
“In the beginning I was hesitant,” said Kaur. “I was worried about what people might think. Jasmeen encouraged me to let go, and go ahead with it. Jhaka khul gaya (I lost my hesitation and fears). It has been a transformative experience and yes, people would stop by, some would stare, some would be amused, some would support it too. I continued acting through all of it.”
“Both my grandmother and I struggle to recall what our first official photo shoot was,” said Patheja. “Perhaps the earliest of the performance series is where Kaur is wearing sunglasses, and looking into the mirror. That might have been in 2005.”
Gradually, from performing indoors and shoots done in the absolute privacy of homes or private spaces, the two started moving towards public spaces.
“But, there is a difference between being comfortable with the camera and performing, becoming an actor. The performative nature of our project grew gradually, as did her comfort with her body, costume, role and characters. Indri performed characters she desired to become,” said Patheja.
One of their favourite shoots happens to be in a public place – a palace.
“My grandmother’s favourite one is her as her Majesty Miss Pickles in Stuttgart, Germany. The photo shoot was done inside the palace, Schloss Solitude.”
In another photo shoot done in Germany, Kaur channels her inner stage performer. The day before the shoot, she dreamt that she was on stage in front of an audience at a Paris opera in the 1920s. So, the next day, in a long trailing overcoat borrowed from a costume shop in Stuttgart and a red feathered headdress, Kaur poses for the picture looking like someone who could juggle the role of an opera singer and a Disney character with ease.
Kaur was born in Mogok, Myanmar, but was forced to flee to Lahore during World War II. She was a 9-year-old at the time and was better known as Ma Ina then. Along with a large group of people, Kaur travelled to Lahore by foot, leaving her father behind. She would only be reunited with him when she was 16.
Kaur revisited her childhood during one shoot. In one photograph taken at a Kolkata school ground, she stands in a frock, her hair braided and looped to stay out of the way as she gets ready to play hopscotch.
“She was hesitant to wear a frock and step out,” said Patheja. “But she negotiated her own fears. She stepped into desire.”
During these shoots, Patheja witnessed her grandmother’s transition from acting to morphing into the character she wanted to be. On occasion, she has to remind her not to over-act. “I try and imagine the life of the character and become that. Jasmeen becomes a director and we both get lost in our world,” said Kaur.
All photographs by Jasmeen Patheja.