The other day, my husband came to the dining table and said, “Where are the serving spoons?” “In between the frangipani flowers, dearest,” I said. A bunch of children from the
building ran in, exclaiming that they were ravenously hungry. Saturday night is Maggi night in my house and as a result, we become the most popular family in my building. In place of the familiar yellow plastic packet, the children saw an arrangement so alien it stopped them, and the neighbour’s dog, in their tracks. In the centre of my wooden dining table was a giant white bowl, with a mound of black Assam rice on it, stroked and brushed like a sand dune. On top of the rice was a strawberry with a yellow crayon stuck across it. Across the table was I, photographing the scene using my smartphone. I was in search of the perfect shelfie.
I first read about shelfies in the pages of this newspaper. Shelfies are all the rage in the virtual universe of photographs. These are artful arrangements of objects that people photograph and upload on photo-sharing sites like Instagram. Photographers from Paris, New York and even Croatia upload amazingly composed shots of objects on shelves, dining tables, and their bedrooms. I scroll down these still-life arrangements and alternate between rage, cynicism and inspiration. One of the women I follow puts Aesop’s cosmetics, a Dior bag, and Manolo Blahnik shoes next to each other against a pristine white background. In the middle, she sprinkles some violet flowers and a few wads of crumpled paper. Why crumpled paper? What is the equivalent of that in my Indian shelfie? Cow-dung sprinkles? When I moan in this fashion, my children say, “Ma, for you everything is about cows and cow dung.”
One of my recent favourites was a macaroon juxtaposed against a leather-bound notebook, and chocolate shavings in a pristine white bowl. What gave it panache was the driftwood on the side. There wasn’t a necessarily logical reason for these objects to be together on a table. They just looked good. After spending days surfing these photographs, I became obsessed with photographing shelfies myself. I didn’t think it would become an addiction. I thought I was merely photographing objects that were littered around my house. Within a few days, my project took on a life of its own.
Typical evening. My 12-year-old daughter rushes into the house kicking off her shoes and throwing down her school satchel. She has scraped herself and there is blood. What do I do? I whip out my mobile phone.
“Ma, I’m hurt.”
“Wait a minute, darling. The light is just right. Hold on just one second.”
I’m stalking around the fallen school satchel like a predator, trying to capture its folds; adjusting the casually thrown sneaker so that it is perpendicular to the purple school bag. As an afterthought, I bring out a pair of sunglasses and balance them on top of the school books that have been teased to resemble a volcanic mound. I turn them around to show off the logo. If she can show off her Céline and Dior, I can show off the sunglasses I bought from a Texas cowboy hat-wearing vendor on the Brigade Road junction in Bangalore.
Meanwhile, my child is crying, blood is oozing, and there are sandy footsteps all over my just-cleaned floor. I click the schoolbag, books, sunglasses and dirty sneakers composition; finesse the image using a bunch of photo filters that I have downloaded—Afterlight is the one I am partial to—and quickly upload my image on Instagram.
“Ma, I am bleeding.”
“Just put a sock on it, dearest.”
This then is what it has come to. I am able to ignore a hurt, bleeding child just to capture a perfect shot. War photographers were perhaps this way, I rationalize, when I come out of my zombie-like torpor. But I am no war photographer. I am merely a shelfie uploader, who seeks “likes” as if they were oxygen.
Shelfies are the click-and-publish equivalent of the still lifes of yore. Paul Cézanne painted fruit bowls with luscious apples and glistening grapes. We called it art. Today’s photographers click such still lifes and upload them for free, just so they can get 17,123 likes. The pleasure is in the sharing; in the appreciation; in the finding of random objects that will become beautiful photographs.
All this has an unexpected benefit though. My home has never looked more artsy. I fuss with my bookshelf, viewing it from multiple angles, and then put miniature clay pots and a lotus candle on it. There, the composition works. I click and upload. Instantaneously, I get 36 likes—actually three, but I’m hoping for 36. There are some people I follow who have 720,000 followers. They upload their still-life compositions and get 234 comments. My goals are much more modest. I would like a comment, maybe two. Then again, I’m a novice at this.
This morning, white jasmine bloomed in my garden. Rather than admiring it and smelling it like I used to, I picked out four flowers and threw them casually on my dining table. I placed a cup of coffee in the middle. The black coffee contrasted with the white flowers nicely. Still, something was missing, I felt. I stared around the living room and discovered the matrimonial section of a newspaper. I crumpled it and threw it in between the jasmine flowers. “Punjabi widower with five issues wants maternal wife. Caste no bar,” said the crumpled fold. I placed a scissors on the side. After all, advertisements were meant for cutting. The scissors gleamed murderously. Very Agatha Christie, or was it chanelling Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl book?
Light glinted off the dining table. A matrimonial ad, black coffee, a weapon and white jasmine flowers. Now, that was a composition. I clicked the scene and uploaded the photo. As of this writing, there were 11 likes, and most of them were from my family. Actually I have never gotten 11 likes. Maximum 4. 11 just sounded good.
Shoba Narayan is staring above her computer at the cockroach on the wall. Can she use it in a shelfie? she wonders. Write to her at email@example.com