logo image Visual & Oral history of the Indian Subcontinent via family archives

130 – My Great-Grandmother, the incredible photographer.

My great-grandparents Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

My great-grandparents, Haleema Hashim with her husband Hashim Usman. Cochin (now Kochi), Kerala. Circa 1955.

Image and Text contributed by Nihaal Faizal, Bangalore

My Great-grandmother Haleema Hashim was born in Burma in 1928. Her family had moved to Rangoon in search of financial prosperity, however, by the time she was four they returned to Kerala, India. Her family belonged to the Kutchi Memon community of Gujarat, Kutchi Memons are Sunni Muslims who migrated from Sindh (in Pakistan) to Kutch in Gujarat, a state of India, after their conversion to Islam. Several of them then migrated to various parts of the world. Haleema’s ancestors had migrated to Kerala. It is not clear what businesses or professions they were involved in.

At the age of 17 she married Hashim Usman, whose family, like many others in Kochi, were Sea food exporters, after which he established a hotel. Haleema and Hashim, my great-grandparents went on to have eight children. One of whom is my maternal grandfather.

Haleema Hashim whom we fondly call Ummijaan, was extremely fond of reading Urdu literature, we again don’t know who her favourite authors were because the books were given away. Later, I also found a few letters she had exchanged with people from other countries, who were clearly her pen pals. She was also an avid gardener and would tend to her garden with great love in Fort Kochi.

After her marriage, she began developing an interest in images and taught herself the art of photography through books and magazines. She had in possession two cameras, an Agfa Isolette 3, which was her first camera and then she moved on to a Yashica. I am not sure where she may have bought them, though I am told that her brother would take the photographed negatives to a studio to have them developed for her.

Her subjects were usually the domestic environment and family members of her large joint family. She photographed her relatives, sisters, husband’s family, as well as brides-to-be women from the Kutchi Memon community. Many of Ummijaan’s photographs also featured her children, more so the youngest two, her identical twin daughters Kiran and Suman, born in the late 1960s whom she photographed extensively; one could say that it made for an original body of work. She never practiced professionally, nor do I think she was in an environment where photography was encouraged or paid any attention to, but perhaps it was the very reason she could practice and experiment with no intervention even if within the domestic environment. To my mind, she built a sort of practice like an artist engaging actively with a medium. She would position her children in varying poses, and create sets and arrangements in and around the house and her garden, using furniture and home-ware decorative pieces as props.

Ummijaan continued photographing for around 25 years of her life, which has now comprised into an enormous body of incredible work. Standing not very encouraged, Ummijaan gradually gave up photography. Later assuming that the images had no value and no one would be interested, she burnt her negatives down. When I began taking photographs in my 10th grade, someone in the family mentioned Ummijaan’s images. Later I found some of her picture albums, (hundreds of photographs) and I was floored by the quality of her works. She indeed had a very natural, unique and perceptive eye for creating beautiful images. Acknowledging great value in these photographs, I began borrowing the albums from her and digitising them. Her memory lucid, unlike now, she would insist I return them intact. Which I did. She also insisted that I give away the images to family members, which too I dissuaded her from.

My great grandmother, Ummijaan, the incredible photographer, is now 86 years old though she doesn’t keep too well and her memory is almost lost. She lives in an apartment in Kochi. I now study at the Srishti School of Design in Bengaluru, Karnataka and continue to digitise her works. Noting my great interest and respect for my great grandmother’s photographs, it is incredibly heartening and amazing to see my own family too now extremely interested and appreciative of her works.

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Responses (5)

  1. Mallika says:

    Dear Nihaal, this is incredible. I stumbled onto your post as I am researching photography and family life in twentieth-century India, and am especially interested in how women engaged with the camera, the photographs they took and posed in and how these circulated further into family histories. Would it be alright if I got in touch with you? My email is mallikaleuzinger@gmail.com

  2. Jason Tilley says:

    This is a wonderful story, Oh how I would love to see the photographs one day.

  3. Suman Zia says:

    Very happy to read this Nihaal . Equally delighted that you noticed Ummi’s long forgotten photographs and turned it to something that the world can now see .Waiting to see the images …

  4. dhamini says:

    This is amazing. Will the writer be putting these digitized photos online anytime soon? And I wonder what Ummijaan looks like now. Really fantastic piece, this one.

  5. Oscar says:

    Wow! That is an incredible story. Maybe you can host a gallery screening in her honor! I for one would love to see those images.

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