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     Volume 6 Issue 39 | October 5, 2007 |

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Of Black and White

of Light and Shade

Syed Badrul Ahsan

Memories come crowding into the mind every time you think back on all the days we have spent in black and white. Yes, of course there is much colour that has seeped into life these days. The rainbow, metaphorically speaking, is out there for us. When you watch television, there is always this intense display of colours that cheers the heart in you. Your photographs, if they are in colour, bring a spring into your step as you walk down the pavement. All those women, beautiful and seductive or both, add a freshness to the musical niche in your heart when they come attired in all their multi-layered finery. And have you watched how men have lately developed a taste for ties that push colour into something more assertive, into the garish to be precise?

But sit back and reflect somewhat on things that have been. There are the clouds which once came into your world, into the childhood you rushed through. Those were the black and white days. It was a time when we were snapped, along with our parents (around whom we clustered like so many chicks or so many lambs), on the lawn that was an integral part of the home. That lawn, yours as well as mine, has passed into the region of mere remembrance. The coconut palms that swayed in the breeze on the fringes of the lawns, the beli flowers that sent their scent wafting all across the neighbourhood, the rains that came crashing down on the hot tin roofs of houses are all part of the melody that defined us through the Fifties and Sixties. You might get an idea of what life signified when you suddenly bump into old movies that post-modernistic television sometimes deigns to bring into your living room. It is Uttam Kumar you spot serenading a quietly passionate Suchitra Sen under skies demonstrative of the flight of fleecy clouds. When Kabori sings in Shutorang, or when Shabnam turns her fiery gaze on a naughtily singing Rahman in Talash, it is time that comes encapsulated in all that black and white.

Something touches the soul, makes its way into it, when you think in terms of black and white. Fathers wore white shirts or kurtas, mothers made themselves pretty in white sarees edged by red borders. That was the real world for you and me, and no degree of colour that makes an endless abstract painting of life these days can measure up to the thrill that was embodied in the dominance of black and white in all the times we have lost to eternity. Women, young and middle aged, might or might not be married, were demure beings, with their prominent 'khonpas' coming across as a statement about the nature of womanhood before the world turned into a slightly more complex place. A lot of stitching went on in those days. Sweater knitting was a household affair for women. With television still charmingly, mercifully absent in our part of the world, children read more and so knew more. The advent of twilight was the first sign of little boys and girls gathering before parental authority with their school homework. In villages and in towns, there was a certain cadence that came into the innocence of children reading out in loud voices from their textbooks. It is a sound you do not hear any more.

And you do not hear the welcome ubiquity that was the radio. In our black and white days, it was the radio that mattered, for it spurred the imagination into ever widening expanses of thought. The knob was turned on, quite some minutes went by before the machine came to life and then there opened up before you a whole wide world that had space enough for your imagination to body forth, as Shakespeare would say, the forms of things unknown. It was the radio that let us into the magic that was oratory. Nehru, Kennedy, Castro and so many others spoke to us through the radio and loomed larger than life. What went for charisma, for historicity, owed a good deal to the radio. Distance between supermen and us was what mattered. In the age of black and white, it was the heights we observed. The time when television would dumb down ideas and men was yet far away. Music was what the radio gave us; and most of the songs we have sung in our lonely moments date back to the age when we first heard them on the radio.

Black and white was merely another phrase for undiluted creativity. Nothing beats the nostalgia and the symbolism that come with a black and white Apur Sansar. You may have whole platoons of young men and young women gyrating in all the panoply of colour in Hindi cinema, but you do not get from them the sense of aesthetic fulfillment that once came from Vyjanthimala as she danced her way through black and white movies. In the black and white era, being natural was all. Men did not struggle into near collapse trying to conceal their wrinkles or their age. And painting faces or dyeing hair in near bizarre form was unknown to women.

People penned letters to family and friends in the days when black was beautiful and white was pristine. It was a time when women waited by the pond, even as the palm fronds swayed in the winds at dusk, for the men they loved to come home. It was a season when little boys went looking for birds' eggs in treetop nests in the ecstasy of imminent discovery. It was an age when the moon, untainted by men's footprints, shimmered in the pool that was poetry.

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