by Mallika Leuzinger

Figure 1: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Yasmin Ismail, c.1950s, 635 x 635 mm. Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal

In this article, I explore the work of Haleema Hashim (1928-2017), a member of the close-knit Sunni Muslim community of Kutchi Memons in the South Indian port city of Cochin, whose husband was gifted an Agfa Isolette III by Saleh Mohammad, a wealthy relative.[1] It was Haleema who learnt how to operate this folding camera, and eventually also a Yashica Twin Lens Reflex Camera, becoming the first, and for decades, sole person in her social circle to photograph with skill and enthusiasm. 

Haleema, or Ummijaan as she is referred to by her descendants, trained her lens on her children, nephews and nieces and female relatives with whom she lived in a two-storey, joint-family house known as Yasmin Manzil, making the most of tables, chairs, mirrors, patterned cloths and bright floral arrangements (Figure 1) and occasions such as weddings. Characters outside the family fold are rare but can be teased out, for example from a unique portrait of Mary, the Christian midwife who delivered all the babies at Yasmin Manzil (Figure 2), or her niece and daughter-in-law, Tasneem, whose childhood memory of being photographed in municipal park involved being ferried there and back by the family’s chauffeur.[2] Given the demanding attributes of Haleema’s practice, it is striking that her subjects seem confident and even happy to appear before her camera, as if they have been pulled not into photography, but into a momentary and yet absolutely tenacious conviviality. 

Figure 2: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Mary outside Yasmin Manzil, c.1950s, 635 x 635 mm.
Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal

Reading in Haleema’s Photography

Such conviviality was also brought about through reading, an activity that figured in many of Haleema’s photographs. Her “reading portraits” number in the hundreds and feature almost all the women and children of her family living at Yasmin Manzil from the 1940s to the 1960s, though her sister-in-law Zainab is a particularly dear and daring subject, pictured here in a loosely-draped sari, a flash of arm visible between the sleeve of her blouse and the pallu (end piece of the sari), the pages of the magazine she is holding curving languorously over her lap (Figure 3), and perched on the verandah (Figure 4).

Figure 3: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Zainab Usman, c. 1951, 635 x 635 mm. Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal

Figure 4: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Zainab Usman outside Yasmin Manzil, c.1950s, 635 x 635 mm.
Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal 

Haleema’s mother Aasiya was highly literate and multi-lingual, and passed on her love for newspapers, magazines and novels in Malayalam, Urdu, Hindi and English to her daughters. Haleema, in turn, inspired her sisters-in-law and own children to reach for these materials, and when her mother went blind, would visit her with express purpose of reading to her.[3] According to Tasneem, Haleema devoured novels – “mostly romance, sometimes spy novels” – and had a fondness for history. She “knew all about other countries, she was very knowledgeable. Mitti as well, Ummi’s sister – she also possessed a great knowledge of history, also of art. About old art from Turkey – about Sofia Masjid.”[4] Haleema also kept abreast with the latest trends in gardening by ordering books about plants alongside seeds from Pocha in Pune.[5]

Above all, Tasneem remembers the sisters’ subscription to the popular, and low-cost Urdu women’s magazines Shama, SitaraBano, and Hoor.[6] Carrying articles about film stars and fashion, glossy advertisements, poems, and serialized stories, these “filmi” magazines were published in cities like Lahore and Delhi and sent to readers across India and Pakistan through the postal service.[7] They were eagerly awaited and always shared amongst the women at Yasmin Manzil, and their relatives in neighbouring houses.[8] According to Tasneem, “nothing was anyone’s personal belonging. Mitti and Ummi would order books, they would circulate and then come back.”[9] Once they made completed the round, they would find their way into the “library” on the second floor of Yasmin Manzil, which took the modest form of two shelves built into the walls.[10]

A Public Sphere of (Reading) Women

Tasneem’s memories resonate with what C.S. Lakshmi, the Tamil writer and founder of the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, writes in her memoirs:

“I remember sleeping hugging a book, for toys were rare in those days. My mother also bought Tamil magazines and exchanged them with other magazines bought by other South Indian ladies. There was a lady who lived across Lady Jamshedji Road which was the main road on which trams used to run. She was known as Swadesamitran Mami for she bought the Swadesamitran magazine. My mother would send my kid brother and me to her place with a magazine and ask us to bring Swadesamitran from her.”[11]

Such descriptions conjure the lively infrastructure behind Haleema’s “reading portraits”. In foregrounding children as the intermediaries who shuttled reading materials back and forth, even handling and treasuring them as objects rather than as reading materials per se, they speak especially to two photographs of Haleema’s first-born son Anwar reading in the garden of Yasmin Manzil and strolling by with an issue of Screen Stories tucked under his arm. In the first (Figure 5), Anwar is so much the picture of a child reading, that it is obvious he has been asked to pose like that for the camera, to play-act this role: his gaze is dutiful rather than engrossed, his perch on the concrete ledge is cute rather than comfortable, and he holds the magazine, which is open at exactly the halfway mark, with excessive tenderness. In the second (Figure 6), the size of the magazine in relation to Anwar’s hands is somehow absurd, and the grin on his face is at once so good-natured and so comedic, dramatizing how he is a little boy in custody of something meant for grown-up women, and conversely, how this supposedly “feminine” literature, so steeped in the fanciful curiosity, gossip and images around the lives of stars, is childlike.

Figure 5: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Anwar Hashim outside Yasmin Manzil, c.1950s, 635 x 635 mm.
Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal

Figure 6: Haleema Hashim, Photograph of Anwar Hashim outside Yasmin Manzil, c.1950s, 635 x 635 mm.
Courtesy of Nihaal Faizal

It is not just that this culture of reading was incorporated in Haleema’s photographs, but also that Haleema’s photographs entered it. In addition to getting an image of her one-year old daughter Jabeen published in Hoor, Haleema sent photographs to various pen pals.[12] Her favourite Urdu magazines had dedicated “pen pals columns” providing the names and addresses of women in the subcontinent and beyond who wanted to write and receive letters, which was perfect for Haleema, who did not otherwise have occasion to practice her Urdu in Cochin and wanted to maintain a connection to other cities and communities she had been part of.[13]

Over the years, Haleema came to count pen pals from Rangoon, her birthplace, Bombay and Madras amongst her closest friends, with Tasneem singling out Zuleikha, who lived in Madras and later Bangalore, and would occasionally visit.[14] Zuleikha and her family appear in Haleema’s photographs that went to Tasneem and Arif, and are now with their grandson Nihaal in Bangalore, and it is quite probable that, somewhere in that same city, an image of Tasneem or Arif is tucked between the folds of a letter in the home of one of Zuleikha’s descendants.

Putting Haleema’s photographs and Haleema’s reading practices in conversation illumines the interconnectivity of home and the world, and a gendered vestige of South Asian, and crucially, South Indian, modernity, where the women of a peripatetic Tamilian Hindu family such as C.S. Lakshmi and of a Kutchi Memon family in Kerala were experiencing similar hopes and joys and a Muslim woman based in Cochin and a Muslim woman based in Bangalore could form lifelong bonds that involved their husbands, children, even great-grandchildren.

Yet as much as Haleema’s “reading portraits” open on to these enduring and geographically expansive modes of conviviality, they also highlight photography and reading as temporary subversions of and diversions from the daily grind. Both, after all, meant pausing, posing, looking up from, re-arranging and re-visioning everyday activities, relations and objects in a strictly-run patriarchal household of a quiet locality.

A “Filmi” Flair

This playfulness is, in many ways, cinematic. While “watching” Haleema’s photographs, a series of grins, winks, and flourishes gradually imprint themselves in the viewer’s mind and a familiar cast emerges: Haleema’s sisters-in-law pose coyly next to sewing machines and tea sets; her sister-in-law Fathima, and reputedly stern mother-in-law Zuleikha, face the camera with expressions ranging from the amused to the conspiratorial. The children rise to the occasion too: her teenage niece Selma cycles by; a cheeky-faced Tasneem and her sister Naaz in floral-print dresses clash against the floral-print textile Haleema has placed them in front of; her daughters Suman and Kiran attach themselves to the staircase or a shiny Ambassador car as a grinning, twinning duo. Even, or especially, the youngest are part of this play, perhaps here more Haleema’s than theirs, for she photographed them sinking into the sofa in furs, possessively clutching a telephone, or the camera case, as if it were their doll, or standing at attention, their tiny frames suited and booted and sporting sunglasses or a little cap.

As the men of the family spent the day at their offices, they were less frequently photographed – though it is likely that their absence facilitated this playfulness, allowing Haleema and her subjects to be a little more daring, a little less self-conscious, a little more frivolous in their occupation of Yasmin Manzil. Hashim, however, is a willing participant, holding his niece Naheed as she plants a kiss to his cheek, and being the camera-operator whenever his wife was to be its subject. His equanimous presence in Haleema’s photographs prompted a “filmi” comment from Nihaal: “Abbajaan was always a very strict man… but in their pictures I see another side of him – the romantic husband.”[15]

Indeed, Haleema’s photography was consciously cinematic to the extent that films provided the most compelling aesthetic cues for Haleema and the people she photographed. As Tasneem noted, 

“There were many theatres in Ernakulam – Shenoys, Kavitha, Menaka, Lakshman and Padma and they would show Hindi and Malayalam films (Hindi was still comparatively rare). There were theatres in Fort Cochin, like Star Talkies, but these would only show the second run for these films, after the theatres in Ernakulam were done with it. There was another theatre called Kokers in Fort Cochin though that they would frequent. Kokers on weekends ran old Hindi films as their morning show and Abba and Ummi would go for these on Sunday mornings.”[16]

Tasneem’s recollection evokes the rich cinematic landscape surrounding the family even if it was only in the 1970s and 1980s that their visits to the local theatres became routine.[17] In 1963, they would likely have gone for Doctor, directed by M.S Mani, because it was financed by their relative Saleh Mohammad, and produced under the name of a distant cousin called H.H. Ebrahim. Indeed, it was probably in relation to Mohammad’s financiering of films that local historian K. N. Latheef listed “cinema” amongst the notable contributions Kutchi Memons had made “to Kerala society.”[18]

Games of Intimacy and Evasion

In a low-key manner, Haleema’s images themselves constitute cinematic contributions. Haleema, Mariam, Zainab and Fathima, as well their children, nephews and nieces were not just drawing on a complex visual register but also re-presenting and re-imagining what they saw in the theatres, on hoardings and in magazines, for and amongst themselves. 

They refigure, for instance, the social, cultural, religious, even nationalist, tropes of femininity embodied by the “vamp”, the “housewife”, the “starlet”, the “Indian mother” as played by the most popular actresses in the mid-twentieth century, Haleema’s favourite actresses being the “old stars” Saira Banu and Meena Kumari. The mischievous and/or innocent poses struck by Tasneem, Naheed, Arif and the twins, meanwhile, were perhaps nods to performances by Kamal Haasan, who debuted in the 1960 Tamil film Kalathur Kannamma but starred in the Malayalam film Kannum Karalum in 1962 alongside ‘Baby Vinodini’, the Irani sisters from Bandish (1955) and Jagte Raho (1956), and Sajid Khan whom they must have seen in his father Mehboob Khan’s 1957 blockbuster Mother India.[19]

Along with being able to “mix and match” from a wide(r) range of tropes given their access to both Hindi and Malayalam cinema, the register Haleema and her subjects advanced also experimented with the kinds of interiors and exteriors which “came out better” on film, and the lighting, camera angles and distances which signified and intensified a person’s character.[20]

In the photograph of Zainab, the playfulness is in how she is positioned amidst the image worlds of femininity proposed by studio portraits, magazines, and cinema. While the reading materials featured in Haleema’s oeuvre are not always discernible, this image presents an open page. Sansar (“world” or “era”, with the Telegu title “Sansaram” translating to “wife”) was a family drama about “a struggling clerk leading a contented life with his loving wife and two children” and how “their happiness is ruined with the arrival of his scheming mother and sister”, as “the clerk soon disappears, abandoning his family”.[21] We are faced, literally, with the women who are left behind – there is no hint of a man in sight – who are reduced to floating heads and figures, cut and pasted onto paper, and whom Zainab serenely holds in hand and presides over. Even if these images-within-the image are not understood in relation to the film’s drama, but read, more simply, as the result of models and actresses being photographed by professional photographers in studios, they are artificial and insubstantial compared to the casual and personable image that Haleema and Zainab are able to turn out in the Yasmin Manzil living room. And while the former are susceptible to the turning of the page, the cruelties and caprices of an anonymous and unpredictable audience hungry for, yet morally judgmental of the femininities of “filmi” culture, Zainab’s portrait is protected by its materialization and movement through familiar, or more precisely, sisterly, hands: hence her serenity! 

Reviewing Patrizia di Bello’s Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts, which excavates a heady, and densely cross-referenced visual culture assembled and perused by elite English women, Juliet Hacking described these nineteenth century albums as “empowering, active, social games of intimacy and evasion”.[22] Haleema’s photography might also be described as such, in their stealthy improvisation of the modalities of conventional studio photography, women’s magazines, “filmi” culture and Kutchi Memon traditions of femininity, domesticity and familiality.


[1] Saleh Mohammad founded the first seafood trading company in the extended family (IndoMarine), was interested in photography and is rumoured to have had a dark room in his mansion in Fort Cochin. Nihaal Faizal, Email to author, 8 July 2019.

[2] Tasneem Arif and Arif Hashim, Interview with author, translated from Kutchi by Nihaal Faizal, Ernakulam, 27 February 2016.

[3] Nihaal Faizal, Email to author, 28 January 2016.

[4] Tasneem Arif and Arif Hashim, Interview.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Nikhat Sattar, “Of days gone by,” Official Website of Zubeida Mustafa, 2013, (accessed April 1, 2016). For an example, see Hoor, Lahore, May 1950, Issue 5, (accessed 10 July 2019).

[7] Sattar, “Of days gone by”.

[8] Tasneem Arif and Arif Hashim, Interview.

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid.

[11] C.S. Lakshmi (Ambai), When I Was Young: Walking Erect With An Unfaltering Gaze (New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2013), 16.

[12] Tasneem Arif and Arif Hashim, Interview.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nihaal Faizal, Email to author, 31 January 2016.

[16] Tasneem Arif and Arif Hashim, Interview.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hiran Unnikrishnan, “Down memory lane with Kutchi Memons,” The Hindu (Kochi), 2nd November 2015, And Nihaal Faizal, Email to author, 19 August 2019.

[19] For more on this cinematic landscape, see Rachel Dwyer and Divya Patel, Cinema India: The Visual Culture of the Hindi Film (London: Reaktion Books, 2002) and Rachel Dwyer, Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a guide to contemporary India (London: Reaktion Books, 2014). Also Meena T. Pillai, “Matriliny to Masculinity: Performing modernity and gender in Malayalam cinema,” in Routledge Handbook of Indian Cinema, K. Moti Gokulsing and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. (London: Routledge, 2013), 102-114.

[20] As used in Christopher Pinney, “Seven theses on photography,” Thesis Eleven, Vol. 113, No. 1 (December 2012), 5.

[21] Randor Guy, “Sansaram 1951,” The Hindu, 6 December 2014, (accessed 19 July 2019).

[22] Juliet Hacking, Book Review of Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts by Patrizia di Bello, Photography and Culture, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2009), 223-226, 225.



Mallika Leuzinger completed her PhD in History of Art from University College London in 2020 and has since been a Fung Global Fellow at Princeton University and Visiting Researcher at the Department for Gender and Media Studies for the South Asian Region at HU-Berlin, where she is working on the monograph Dwelling in Photography: Intimacy, Amateurism and the Camera in South Asia.

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