Kamal Badhey is a photographer, educator and visual urbanist based in New York. Kamal is interested in ideas of dispersal, diaspora and origin pilgrimages, using photography and the narratives of both living and ‘deceased’ spaces, people, and objects to stitch together stories. Her work and sense of home follows the childhood saying told to her in Telugu, ’Katha kanchiki, manam intiki’. The story goes far far away, and now we are back in our homes.
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Photo Essay: Portals and Passageways
In this photo series, Kamal Badhey reflects upon the play of memory, history and family, by revisiting her ancestral home in Secunderabad, India.
When my parents migrated to America they left the majority of their physical belongings. But they brought the physicality of their bodies, as well as a multiplicity of selves: their historic selves, spiritual selves, their memories, and their childhoods. Stories, without the physicality of decay, though mutable, can live forever. They don’t break or mold. By being told and retold, they are incorporated into the family’s collective story. I used to ask myself why my mother only dreamt in India; India was in her thoughts, memories, and feelings. When she slept, she was in India.
My photographs may be an attempt to access this place of my mother’s dreams. They represent my own meshwork, in which I stitch together what I saw, felt, heard, and knew about my family and our understanding of ‘home’.
The day I decided to go to my ancestral home, a woman who worked at the family shop came with me. When she opened the door, I saw changes from my last visit. A brick wall divided the house in two sections, separating the new jewelry workshop from the residential section. The once communal space of my mother’s memories, which housed around forty people, seemed to no longer exist. My mythology was replaced by the physical reality of dilapidation and dust. I walked in and walked around. It was dark and the ceiling paint crumbled with green underneath, a color similar to jade but with cracked patterns.
When I entered, I started sweating immediately. The sun was bright and the rooms were muggy. There was barely any light since the electricity had been shut off. When I entered the kitchen there were two small children playing quietly by the window. The scene seemed magical.
I traveled and went to the part of the house where my family had lived. There was a hallway with a few rooms, each one lined up next to the other. Generations of people had lived in these rooms. As a child I would sit on my grandmother’s bed, waiting for her to untie handkerchiefs, which usually revealed gold earrings or rings inside. These rooms were now empty, as families moved into nuclear settings. Picking through the dust in the back of an old cradle, I found a black and white photo of a group of children with adults, almost like a school portrait. The frame of the photo was starting to fade. I noticed that there was kum kum and turmeric on the photograph. This made me realize that the photo was in remembrance of someone who had passed away.
After taking the photograph out of the dust, I asked my family for the identities of the people. No one knew who anyone was, leaving me with a portal I could investigate. Looking through my ancestral homes in Secunderabad, I found several fascinating objects; a letter to my grandfather from my mom, an ancestral sword, my mom’s stitching book, prayer books, and hand painted portraits of my great-great-grandparents. These objects, when photographed and placed in conversation with each other, awaken the dormant narrative of our ancestors in context of the present. They are the portals that lead us on our passageway.
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