Granny's new robes: A princess, a fairy and a scientist

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Delhi

  • Published
Grandmother IndriImage source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
For this photograph, taken in 2010, Indri showed up dressed in a red sari, with jewellery and make-up. She rarely lets down her hair, but on this occasion allowed her granddaughter to change it

Indian artist and activist Jasmeen Patheja always wanted to be a photographer.

So years ago, when her grandmother Inderjit Kaur said she wished she had been an actor, the two decided to fulfil each other's dreams.

And the result of their collaboration is "Indri and I" - a stunning portfolio of images that shows the 85-year-old dressed in fantastic costumes.

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
A photograph of Jasmeen Patheja with her grandmother taken in 2010 by her sister, Rupam Patheja

"I can't really put a date on when the project began. It possibly started when I was just three years old," Ms Patheja told the BBC.

She remembers the hot summer days of her childhood spent in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) when she would come back home from school.

"We lived in a large joint family. My granny never took an afternoon nap, so I grew up playing with her, her directing me. I grew up hearing how she could have been a doctor, a nurse, a school teacher or even the prime minister. And every afternoon, I would become one of these characters," Ms Patheja says, adding that "daydreaming was encouraged and facilitated".

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
This photo was taken when Indri had hurt her back and was advised to wear a belt

Mrs Kaur was a housewife, her education interrupted by the uncertainties of World War Two. Born in Burma (now Myanmar), she escaped with her family to Lahore in what is now Pakistan at the age of nine when Japan attacked British-ruled India. It was six years before the family could return home.

"At times she would say, 'I wish I had studied more.' She had this regret, a sense of missed opportunity about not having studied. But she made up for it because she was very curious and deeply engaging."

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
Here, Indri is a "mango-pickle scientist" because "she loves making pickles and can make them from anything"

Also, she enjoyed being photographed and was "a real natural" in front of the camera, Ms Patheja says.

"So a few years ago, one day when she said, 'I wish I had been an actor', I said to her, 'Ok, you act and I will take photographs'."

And thus was born "Indri, the actor".

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
Indri always wanted to play a fairy and this photo was taken at the Botanical Garden in Howrah, near Kolkata

Together, they started creating characters for photo shoots that Indri had always dreamt of becoming.

"Indri the actor started taking risks in the way she was dressing up, with the way she was putting up her hair, with her make-up," Ms Patheja says, adding that, "one thing I was always clear about - 'I didn't want to 'cuteify' her."

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
Indri planned and directed this shoot - Ms Patheja says her granny had worked out the pose, gesture and camera angle and that she was just "invited to press the camera button"

Over the years, she saw her granny transform into a politician, a princess, a fairy, a scientist, and a dozen other characters.

Ms Patheja says the first image for the collection was taken sometime in 2004 or 2005 and after thousands of photographs, it's "still a work in progress".

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
This costume came from a shop in Stuttgart while Indri and Ms Patheja were doing a residency there in 2010 . "A night before the shoot, Indri dreamt she was singing to an audience in 1920s Paris," Ms Patheja says.

The images, at one level, are very personal, on the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter, two women who wanted to be part of each other's journey.

But at the same time, they are a commentary on ageing and desire, challenging and raising questions on the invisibility of the elderly.

"Every one is growing old, ageing is an inevitability. But the issue is between being old and invisible versus being old and having agency," Ms Patheja explains.

"We need to think about ageing and its future, our future, to look forward to it. Our bodies will change and we will become vulnerable through age. So we as societies, need to move towards building, demanding, envisioning, inclusive spaces, environments that enable our changing bodies, instead of forcing us to be invisible."

Image source, Jasmeen Patheja
Image caption,
In some of the photos like this one, Indri revisited her childhood

The response to the project, she says, has been "most encouraging".

"Since the time I published this piece in early April, lots of women, especially elderly women, have written to me, praising the project. It has also been appreciated by women who are close to their grannies or granddaughters."

I ask Ms Patheja if there's a finish date for the project?

"It will go on as long as she desires to act; and as long as I want to take photographs."

Photos by Jasmeen Patheja