The Childhood Cinema Show

Suresh Narayanan works for ‘Overdrive’ magazine. Photographing cars may be his passion and profession, but for his personal photographic work, he also loves to experiment with the limitations of technology and the possibilities of light.

Suresh Narayanan works for Overdrive magazine. Photographing cars may be his passion and profession, but for his personal photographic work, he
also loves to experiment with the limitations of technology and the possibilities of light.

This story was originally published in May 2016.

The house I grew up in was about 5km away from the beach in Kerala. The sand was so soft that we could dig deep holes using only our bare hands. Though it looked dark and muddy on the surface, the earth inside was pristine, if we dug only as deep as a metre. With great excitement, we would continue digging. 5metres into the ground, while we were in our pursuit to dig wells, we would find glorious treasures of beautiful seashells. By now, you must be wondering that what sand, water and seashells have to do with photography, or with a section like Visual Musings. Frankly, nothing. But the memory relates to something truly wonderful for me.

In 1975, I didn’t know what photography was. But we—my friends and I—enjoyed photography, unknowingly. We used to have cinema shows in our houses. Here, I need to explain what our version of a cinema show was. This cinema was quite literally ‘photography’ (‘painting with light’) but it did not have any film or digital image. But, we had a lens, a light source and a dark room to project the image. Everything that we needed was makeshift and we would create our own moving photogram.

Let me explain further. The lens we used was made of a tungsten bulb, with the fuse taken out. We would fix the bulb in a small hole dug in the ground and then carefully remove the wax and filament holder using a nail and a small hammer. Of course, we broke several bulbs, but one out of many would be a successful attempt and that took care of the most difficult part of the contraption. After removing the filament, we would tie a thread on the aluminum holder and fill water into the bulb. Then, we would be off to the canal nearby to catch tiny fish, which was easy to do, considering the backwaters in Kerala are connected to canals everywhere. We would gleefully put five or six fish in the bulb.

Photograph/Suresh Narayanan

Photograph/Suresh Narayanan

My friend’s house, with its thatched roof and bamboo matt walls served as our theatre. A tiny hole in the wall was our projector. Our film was the bulb hanging against the hole and a white dhoti against the opposite wall became our screen. We would close the doors and windows to create darkness and then redirect sunlight through the bulb using a mirror. And thus, we created our magic! Rainbow colours would flood the inside of the room. The projected image was not restricted to the white dhoti… it would envelop the room with a brilliant gleam.

The fishes swimming in the bulb were visible with colours glinting off their edges. All of us, 10-12-year-olds, had no idea that this, in a way, the same principle that photography is based on, but were experiencing it, all the same. The subject, curiously enough, in our case, was inside the lens. All types of lens and colour aberrations were visible, adding to the fun. A few of us would go in the room and stand in front of the screen… the fish would be swimming across our bodies. The surreal nature of the experience is still fresh in my mind. This fun was not without consequences.

My friend would get a beating for making a hole in the bamboo mat walls. I, for breaking bulbs. But we would preserve the bulb, all for a little glimpse of magic at another time, in another house. Today, I have sophisticated imaging equipment to make whatever I dream of, into reality. Creating gives me joy, sheer joy, as it did then, it does now. But the beauty of this memory, for me, is the fact that I had no idea that photography would become such an integral part of my life when I would grow up. And that’s the thing about childhood, isn’t it? The greatest inspiration for our photography, or any art that we practise, can come from our childhood experiences. All we need to do, is look within.

Tags: Suresh Narayanan, Visual Musings, october 2014