THE STARLIGHT STUDIO
A large black and white family portrait has always hung on a narrow wall in my grandmother’s home. As a child I spent every weekend at that house, and as soon as I arrived, I would tear through the fruit tree laden garden with Ginger in howly-growly pursuit, kick off my slippers at the porch and careen into the house, up the stairs, down the corridor that smelt of a heady mix of incense and Dettol, past the showcase with the glassy eyed china figurines and brake to a stop outside her bedroom door.
The portrait was just outside that door and was positioned at adult eye level, but thanks to the fact that I physically took after my mother’s side of the family, this posed no problem at all. I would examine the photograph closely, trying to pick out a detail that I might have missed out the last 1000 times I had poured over the portrait.
It was a typical Indian family photograph from the 1960’s; taken at a studio with the ubiquitous curtain and Grecian column as a backdrop. The mother, my grandmother, is seated with a bewildered baby on her lap, while my grandfather stands proudly behind her with the rest of the brood clustered round in their Sunday best behaviour.
My grandmother is likely wearing a colourful printed Saree, which has been reduced to monochromatic splodges. Her black walking sandals peek out rather sturdily from under the hem of her Saree, which may have been a calculated move on her part. She is also wearing too much jewellery, but I doubt my grandfather would have been able to talk her out of that.
Chandra Athe, my eldest aunt also wears a prominent gold chain, because nothing says wealth like being able to dress your children up in finery. But it is an advantage reserved for the oldest child because anything more than that would have been flaunting it, which is really quite unnecessary my grandmother would have said. There is also a conspicuous absence of traditional outfits for the children; my aunts are all wearing knee length dresses while my uncles and father are all in shorts and t shirts.
While it may have just looked like a simple family portrait to mark the passage of time, this was in fact their first ever family photograph with all 7 children present. There was no doubt that a copy of the photograph would have been mailed to admiring relatives back in India, so there needed to be tangible evidence of Malayan success which of course included gold jewellery, Bata slippers and ‘modern dress’.
My grandmother and Chandra Athe are the only 2 who are clearly smiling, my middle aunt stands bolt upright with her lips tightly pressed together, while my youngest aunt Rajes is looking into the camera like a musang caught in the headlights. Her right arm is raised and her fingers are outstretched behind her, I suppose she was searching for the comforting handhold of her older sisters. But don’t let Rajes Athe’s uncertain demeanour fool you, barely a year after the photograph was taken, the 6 year old Rajes dressed up in her older brother’s clothes, walked out of the house and boarded a bus from Gasing Road to Petaling Jaya Old Town.
3 hours of dramatic tension later, in an age without cell phones or even house phones for that matter, my aunt was reunited with my frantically furious grandmother at the Old Town bus depot where the station master was keeping her happy with orange juice and Jacob’s cream crackers. When asked why she absconded like that, Rajes Athe replied that as a brave child she was entitled to do anything and go anywhere she pleased. She added that she was tired of wearing dresses and that from that point forward she would only wear shorts like her brothers.
But back when the family portrait was taken, Rajes Athe’s willfulness had perhaps not yet materialised, except in trying unsuccessfully to remove the lopsided hair bow that my grandmother must have determinedly pinned to her unruly curls.
My youngest uncle is the baby on my grandmother’s lap and he stares off to the side in the perpetually startled, chubby cheeked profile of portrait babies. My other uncle, Raja Chittappa, has my favourite expression of them all; he glowers at the camera in all of his 7 year old rage, which might have also had something to do with the impossibly high waistband of his shorts.
To my grandfather’s left, is my father, who on account of being the oldest son, gets to occupy this prime position. Everyone’s hands are visible in the photograph, except for my father and grandfather’s which are hidden behind the shoulders of the younger children in the foreground. My father once found me staring at the portrait on the wall and remarked that although the Photo Uncle had yelled at the children ‘ai yaaaa stand straight with arms by the side!’, he had slid his hands into his pockets in a jaunty act of rebellion. My grandfather had noticed this and calmly tried to stop him just as the photo was taken; and so unbeknownst to anyone my father and grandfather ended up holding hands in their first formal family portrait.
When my grandmother died last year, I took the portrait down from outside her bedroom wall, having decided to make copies of the photograph for all of my uncles and aunts. The simple wooden frame was starting to crack in places, and I held it carefully to avoid being skewered by splinters. The metal tabs that held the wooden backing in place were rusted and so I put the frame down on the floor to search for a tool that would help me pry the photo free.
I entered the door to my grandmother’s bedroom and headed straight for her desk drawer. It was as expected, a complete mess. My grandmother had an abhorrence for throwing anything away, and could have easily become the subject of a reality TV series had something like that existed in Malaysia. The drawer protested open and I rifled through random pages ripped from old calendars, yellowing receipts with most of the information unreadable, ballpoint pens that had haemorrhaged their contents into crumpled handkerchiefs, hair and safety pins bent into submission, rolled up posters of beatific deities and stacks of old passport photographs for family members through the years. Deep in the recesses of the drawer, my fingers made contact with a cool, metal object and I drew out a small brass container with a lid. I opened it to find kungkumum inside, the scarlet powder shockingly vibrant amongst the decades of decay.
A small amount of the kungkumum stained my fingers as I picked up the brass cover, its edge promisingly sharp as a pick. Back outside the room, I sat on the floor and slid my makeshift tool under the rusted metal tabs and lifted gently, but the tabs still snapped and broke, leaving small copper imprints on the 4 sides of the backing. The wooden backing, photo and glass all lifted cleanly away from the frame, but I realised I was going to have a problem as soon as I saw that the photograph didn’t slide away from the glass.
I tried to peel back the top corner of the photograph and to my horror it tore in my hand, just a couple of millimetres, but enough for me to immediately halt my clumsy assault. So there I sat on the floor with deconstructed photo frame in my lap, wondering how to tell my father, uncles and aunts that I had just desecrated a piece of family history, when I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I quickly tried to assemble the glass fronted photo back into the frame and held it together the best I could.
It was my Rajes Athe, who was nearly obscured by a mountain of sheets that had been used to drape over the furniture during the past 3 funereal days. She peered at the photograph in the lap and I caught her first smile in what felt like forever.
‘I remember that day when we all went to the Starlight Studio to have that picture taken,’ she beamed.
‘I wanted so badly to wear shorts and a shirt but Amma forced me to wear that silly dress and then Chandra Akka made it 10 times worse by cramming that stupid bow on my head. I was so angry with her that I tried to pinch her when Photo Uncle said smile so that she would have a funny face but I didn’t reach her in time,’ giggled my aunt.
‘The Starlight Studio, Athe? The one in Old Town, near the wet market?’ I asked.
‘That’s the one darling,’ said my aunt as she shuffled off into my grandmother’s bedroom.
That afternoon I drove out to Section 1 in Petaling Jaya and found the Starlight Studio. After calling on my parking karma and scoring a marked bay just metres away from the shop, I made my way through the same doorway that my father’s family would have stepped through 50 years earlier. Inside the shop, the dimly uplit walls were plastered with family portraits, graduation pictures and wedding photos of generations of PJ folk. I showed the photograph to a twinkly eyed gentleman behind the counter who smiled knowingly.
‘Uncle, can you help me save this picture please?’ I pleaded.
He asked me if I wanted a cup of Chinese tea and when I said yes, he turned to a steaming pot behind him and lifted the cover. He held the bottom left corner of the glass locked photograph over the rising steam with one hand and deftly poured me a cup with the other. He placed my tea before me on the glass countertop and slid a piece of paper between the glass and the photograph, and the photograph peeled away from the glass just enough to expose a handwritten scribble in faded blue ink.
‘15265-90. Now I know who you are,’ he said with a grin.
Motioning me to drink my tea, he disappeared into a darkened room at the back of the shop and reappeared 10 minutes later holding a cardboard box.
The box contained hundreds of negatives carefully preserved in little paper envelopes, all painstakingly labelled with the date the photograph was taken. It was all there, the family growing and evolving through the years. Family portraits, graduation pictures and wedding photos, caught in time as sepia tinted memories. And yes, in an envelope marked 15625-90 was the negative for that first family portrait.
I asked him to make me 7 copies of the photograph and to encase each one in a simple wooden frame. He gently smoothed the original photograph back onto the glass and rummaged around his counter until he found a suitable sized frame. In a minute, the photograph had been restored to a wall worthy condition, and tucked safely into a paper bag.
He wrote me up a bill for the 7 copies and their frames, and despite my protesting, he refused to charge me anything for mending the original photo I came in with. Instead he waved me out of the shop, reminding me to come back in a week’s time to pick up the framed copies and not to forget the Starlight Studio if I needed a portrait taken of my own family. I asked him if he’d be able to accommodate a Basset Hound and Cocker Spaniel in his studio and he laughed and said ‘why not?’
Why not indeed, I asked myself as I stepped out into the sunshine. I caught sight of the Bata shoe store across the road, and next to it the bus depot teeming with people beginning and ending all manner of journeys. I would write him a thank you note, I decided, and turned to look back into the inky space of the Starlight Studio.
I called out a hello and asked for his name, and heard in response,
‘Ai-yaaaa, just Photo Uncle will do.’
Sumitra Selvaraj has spent the last 15 years immersed in Broadcasting and Public Relations in Malaysia. She is currently the Executive Producer of an English language television talk show on the ASTRO satellite network. Sumitra lives in Petaling Jaya with her husband, a cranky Basset Hound, and a hearing and sight impaired Cocker Spaniel.