Posted in Socio-Cultural

The Swamy Photo Shops (Swamy photo kadai)

This is not about photoshop but about shops that sold photos or pictures.

We Indians are way too familiar with photo shops that line our temple streets and the temple towns where framed pictures of Hindu deities of all sizes are painted-printed to be sold for a price to the devout. Practising Hindus revere two relics in the puja (home service or altar): framed pictures from the photo shops and/or ‘vigrahas’ (small stone/metal carvings/sculptures/idols). We inherit some as heirlooms passed over for generations in the family; we go for the latest prints of our deities as well to suit our home decor. There are then the laminated ones for our desktops. There are photographs from temples of the murthis as well. Photo shops cater to our devotional cravings and there are some of us who are even ‘collectors.’ I have friends who boast of collections of Tanjore paintings that have been the rage for some time. Personally for me, the Tanjore art is for aesthetics never for Puja. Nevertheless, I love to browse through these religious photo shops that have a variety to choose from: the black & whites to enameled and embossed works with silver and even gold filigrees. Gods and Goddesses at their finest! I have even feasted my eyes on rarest depictions of Raam, Lakshman, Bharatha, Hanuman in which Raam is not at all looking good! There are antique finishes in photo kadais although now I am not sure whether the faded look is manufactured digitally these days. I wonder where the sepia tinted Lakshmi and Saraswathi from my parents’ home went. The ageing of those pictures was natural lending them an ethereal look. I do now have the Raja Rajeshwari like a reigning queen in my puja, from my in-laws home that has been with the family for over a hundred years. I have not retouched it or tried to restore it. I merely changed the frame as the old teak one had given away and the picture was exposed to damages.

As a Mylaporean, I have spent hours and years walking in the four Mada streets looking at the swami photo shops. Dutifully every morning on way to school I would say a small prayer to all the deities that graced us girls from within the wall of those shops. The frames then were wood. Now what we have for frames is either metal or plastic variant that however comes with a wood finish. Except for the artistically done Tanjore painting that is hoisted over teak frames, none else merits a wood frame these days.

The city has swami photo shops in every locality but it is those in Mylapore that are always special to me. I also have the habit of getting at least a small photo or vigraha from whichever temple town I visit like for a memento. My Puja articles such as bronze/copper diyas, deepa aarthi etc., are from the temple town of Tirupathi. In my parents’ family, always the puja paathiram (articles) for the newly wed were gotten from Alarmel Mangapuram in Keezh Tirupathi even if we daughters of the family were also gifted another set in sterling silver (as ‘seer’) (that we would secure in the bank lockers to use only for our kids). Years of hoarding small framed pictures and vigrahas have added to my collection and now my puja has become a bit staggering! Not really, but I wish I could keep it modest. However, every swamy photo in my puja can tell a story. Nothing was bought over the counter like a commodity. Guruvayurappan came home for instance from Guruvayur, where in 1996 I and my husband gave ‘tulabharam’ to our son in the temple. By the way, the kadai veedhi of Guruvayur is spectacular with the perpetual air of festivity about it !!! A second time, I got a small pair of Kerala kuthuvilakku from the same Guruvayur sannadhi street.

Tirupathi sannadhi street/kadai veedhi was a craze for me when we used to go to the seven hills every year for a darshan. My Mallikarjuna is from Sri Sailam, Kanaka Durga from Vijayawada, Udipi Krishna from Udipi, Mookambika from Kollur, Sharadhamba from Sringeri, Lalithambika from Thirumeeyachur. Satya Narayana was lovingly gifted by my Chithappa (as I observe the Pournami vratham) who also with my Chithi gifted me the first ‘traditional five’ photo: Pillayar, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Murugan and Perumal. We all start our life (thani kuduthanam) with those basic five in single frame! No business runs in India without these five who are important for success in any and everything. Another prized frame is Lalitha Parameshwari, printed from handdrawn painting by the Sringeri seer. That edition is sold off now. Our Arni Perumal (from the Shiva Vishnu temple of our family whose presiding deity is Perumal, with Shiva in a small sannadhi) is juxtaposed against Tirumala in a framed picture in my puja, due credits for which go to a cousin for his literal photoshop work. Arunachaleshwara is from Thiruvannamalai. I have Varahi from the Varahi homams I attended for years every Amavasya. I have Sarabeshwara again from my chithappa both of which I was discouraged from having. A believer in forgiving gods and never in punishing ones, I went ahead with having them and they are with me for over 15 years now. In the Padikasunathar temple near Kumbakonam, the archaka returned our mint fresh 10 rupee notes after placing them in Shiva’s feat that I framed for puja. Looks as if I am worshiping Gandhi, but then why not. Love him or hate him, he was an exceptional humanbeing. Perhaps not a cult guru but a guru nevertheless.

There is something in our family puja (in our community) that is not sold in shops, and this the shivaite sign of our family tree representing our Kula deivam. My mother used to do ours in a wood block anointing it with turmeric and vermillion but i decided to paint my in-laws’ heritage in yellow and red symbolically in a piece of wood. This is a distinct mark of our lineage and although now I am trying to wriggle out of these binding roots, I respect and revere them immensely. Our Arni ancestral home is like a repository for aged swami photos handdrawn and/or painted originally supported by teak or rosewood frames. I picture the great grandfathers and their wives and families in this house whenever I visit. The palatial home had once mounted within its high ceilinged, beamed and pillared spaces, original Ravi Vermas. Or perhaps very first copies from an era when colour photographs were still leagues away.

There are connoisseurs of God’s pictures like these. Serious collectors. Like those who go for offbeat Meenakshi Sundareshwara, Kanyakumari, Ma Durga etc . I recall Devi names among other protective avatars during my everyday puja. The deities whose names I chant aloud have surprisingly made their way to my puja. That is how Annapurna reached me from Kashi/Varnasi, and Vaishno Devi reached me from Kashmir. I have even Pashupathinath from Nepal received as gift. These last three are in my puja in middle east. I love looking at puja of friends. I love the oldest/ancient pictures and the inheritance mostly. Tanjore paintings are not really my cup of tea. They do not serve the purpose being ornamental, so far as I am concerned. But I do have two. My chithi chithappa gifted me the baby Krishna for housewarming. My friends gifted Radha Krishna for my son’s wedding. Tanjore art though brings in good vibes.

An important itinerary of my girls gang temple tour is a walk through the mada veedhis or the sannadhi streets of our temple towns, taking stock of framed pictures, antique shops, trivia shops that sold the old parama padham, pallankuzhi etc., the bronze and the copper shops, the claypot shops. I love this kind of nostalgic trips always. With friends, it is even best. It transports me back to the 80s. For Kabali temple utsavam, my grandma used to give me two rupees every year. I used to buy peacock feather from the gypsies with the money. Now i greatly regret it. How many peacocks were forcibly plucked for their feathers! But the thiruvizha kadai veedhi on utsavam days still stays fresh in my memory. The ‘theradi.’

A visit to the temple where I used to frequent every single day of my life until I married washed me over with memories of photo shops. This is still good business as I noted. I walked into one and picked up a bright print on impulse. The shopkeeper asked me if I lived nearby. I said, I did until 28 years ago. Some of my swami pictures are from this shop – the ones that my chithappa gifted. I told the man I used to stop even at this shop everyday for a quick blessing from the divine on my way to school. The owner chuckled saying it was common in those days.

I thought how many small trades India supported. How many varied occupations survived in India, the likes of which you cannot find in any other corner of the globe! How innovative! I think the charm of India is this. I just did not have the heart to move out of the small shop where there was hardly room for more than a couple to browse comfortably. I wanted every single picture of God from the shop! What a beauty is this Sri Rama Seetha Pattabhishegam. I remembered I still did not own one! The dull finish handpainted one was priced at 9k so for the moment I have postponed my swami photo shopping urge. There are many, many more like for instance the Shiva family. The romantic Muruga with Valli Deivanai with the peacock making a beautiful backdrop – a rare angle handpainted frame. Krishna grazing and playing flute. Bala. Lalitha. I loved the different depictions as well, not the conventional always.

Swami photo shop windowshopping reminded me how retail therapy alone is not solution to everything (for bored housewives especially)! At the end of the day. our heart knows what matters. We embrace peace without even knowing it. Most of us underestimate ourselves rating us as materialistic. In the swami photo shop I was thinking like, how i wished i could have one and all of the swamis and a big, big puja and nothing else in life. For a moment, that is the way I felt. My one regret in life is my apartment living where I do not have a puja room. I have to make do with a puja cabinet, that is all. It may be ok, but the swami photo shop reminded me how selfish we are to relegate a mere corner space in our home for our puja. In my parents home as well as old joint family home of in-laws, the puja was a separate room with a door and padlock.

I have decided to repeat the swami photo shop strolls in future at regular intervals. I do not mean in this context the latest showrooms catering to our spiritual needs like the one we have near Kabali temple. I am referring to single standalone swami photo shops that specialize in swami photos and framing. These are another category.

I love the kumkum, chandan shops as well. The archana thattu shops. The glass bangle shops. The flower shops. The thengai mandi. Arisi mandi. Woodpressed oil stores that are now back in business. Coffee bean grinding outlets. Now even Mylapore has deteriorated beyond recognition. Gone is the kind of temple town situated around the tank and temple that we grew up in. Yet those like the swami photo kadais survive against all odds retaining a stubborn foothold in the competitive world where to stay alive is phenomenal. The swami photo kadais are one of the last bits of connection some of us retain with the old world we have lost: that of our parents. I felt such a swell of fulfillment last evening having spent half an hour in a swami photo kadai and an hour and a half in a spiritual store, the kind of which we normally derive from a hearty darshan in temples.

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