Even as she packs her bags for another adventure, Sheila Verghis – amateur photographer, wildlife enthusiast and former professional cricketer – pauses to contemplate the Kanakavalli repertoire, curating a selection of exquisite drapes that reflect her vibrant personality. Her passion for and focus on photography and the natural world, her favourite subject, are evident as she remembers what it was that first drew her to the camera. In a conversation with Aneesha Bangera for the Kanakavalli Journal, Sheila opens up about what photography has given her, the emotions that overwhelm her when she travels in the Himalayas, and the aesthetic of simplicity that defines her tastes.
BEYOND THE LENS
I grew up watching my father taking pictures on his old camera; dusty old photographs and the stories they wove always fascinated me. But it was only in college that I began handling the camera myself… I took photography as an optional subject one semester, and borrowed my dad’s camera for the course. One of my friends was my very first subject and I quickly discovered a love for the visual form.
I took a long break from photography after college, growing busy with my new family, and spending a few years in the US. On our return to India, we happened to move into a house next door to a former Photo Editor of The Hindu. Watching him at work and looking through his photographs triggered my interest in photography for a second time. This time I began taking photographs in earnest. I had no technical knowledge, and little access to photography resources in the days before the internet. I began with a film camera, learning by trial and error. If one roll of film came out right, I figured that I was doing something right somewhere. I absolutely loved shooting on film – the clarity of the images just amazed me. Eventually I switched to a point and shoot, and finally to the DSLR.
Ways of Seeing
Today, with the ubiquitous camera phone, most people are constantly glued to their screens – taking photographs and not really experiencing the moment. But for me, while there is a possibility of missing something going on in the vicinity, I am in fact concentrating fully on what I am seeing through the lens. When I am in that moment, nothing can distract me. My mind’s eye is composing the perfect image, and I am absorbing the incredible detail and beauty of my subject. With the telephoto and other powerful lenses, I see things that I would not with the naked eye - the very form of an insect, a leaf, a butterfly. Through my lens, a tiger that is a quarter of a kilometre away, appears as though it is sitting right beside me! When I look at the amazing geometry and detail of the inside of the flower, I wonder at how much we are missing out on in everyday life. Sometimes, it isn’t even about the act of taking the picture, but just enjoying the unique view and perspective the lens offers.
Into the Wild
I was always an outdoorsy child, a little bit of a tomboy. Nothing inside the house held my attention for long, but I could spend hours playing outside… climbing trees, scraping my knees, discovering caterpillars, and living wholly in nature.
As a state level cricketer from the time I was in the 10th Grade and later becoming a professional player, I have always been on the move, touring the country and playing matches. I played at the junior state, senior state and South zone levels, as well as in the Indian University and Railways teams. Cricket kept me constantly engaged and constantly outdoors. People are often surprised to hear that I played professional cricket for several years – perhaps I don’t really look like a wicket keeper! They are often equally surprised to see me carrying heavy camera equipment, sometimes weighing as much as 7 or 8kgs, as I trek precariously up a hill!
Nature was already happening to me, drawing me in, even before I stumbled upon photography in college. In a way, I have returned to nature now, combining two of my passions. Nothing can beat the rush I get when I’m in the wild, amid lush forests or high up in the mountains. The Himalayas have completely captured my heart – something about the majesty of the mountains keeps pulling me back. The sense of serenity and solitude that comes over me in the Himalayas, even when trekking in a group, is truly special. I have returned there every year for the last three years, and hope to make it to Everest Basecamp next year. My husband also happens to be a complete nature lover and we enjoy travelling together.
For any wildlife photographer, Africa is a magical place. I’ve been three times, and if you were to tell me to pack my bags for another trip today, I would do it in a heartbeat! But there are also so many beautiful, unexplored places in India too that I hope to visit someday.
Sheila's wildlife photography is suffused with a sense of calm and majesty - a rare beauty that only Nature, and a beautiful mind can capture...
Moments That Last
Wildlife photography has all my heart at the moment, bringing together my passion for the art form with my love for being in nature. My husband is an avid bird watcher, and all creatures of the forest fascinate me as photography subjects. But sometimes, even just a landscape can take my breath away. We were in Arunachal Pradesh recently, in one of the thickest, most beautiful jungles I have ever seen. I kept asking myself if so much beauty could truly exist, and was so overwhelmed that I often forgot to pick up my camera.
I have a garden at home, and enjoy shooting different leaves or flowers, experimenting with lenses and angles; and occasionally I will run up to my terrace to try to capture the colours of a particularly lovely sunset. I would like to try my hand at portrait and street photography, but for now the forests and mountains keep calling me back.
Lessons and Aesthetics
Photography has taught me incredible patience, and a newfound appreciation for everything around me, big or small. I have learnt to appreciate people for what they are, just as I do with what I see in the natural world. It is truly a humbling experience, learning to value every little thing, whether manmade or in nature.
Simplicity defines my aesthetic, whether personal or visual. On my travels, I attempt to capture the beauty of simplicity in trees, flowers, wildlife. In my personal style, I have very simple tastes. I like to keep things elegant, comfortable and practical in the way I dress and in the design of the spaces around me. Fortunately for me, my husband and I have very similar tastes so I have not had to curb my personal aesthetics in any way.
On the Kanjivaram
Growing up in South India, I was born into a culture where the kanjivaram was a familiar sight. In those days, we didn’t have the luxury of too many clothes, and new outfits were only for special occasions – birthdays, Diwali, Pongal. And those new clothes, treasured more than any other, were invariably kanjivarams. Until today, the kanjivaram evokes memories of happiness and celebration for me.
From the age of 15 until I was 30, I was busy playing cricket. Spending so much time in practice and travelling, I rarely had the opportunity to wear the silk saris I so loved. Before my second child was born, I decided to hang up my boots as they say, and for me that signalled a time of reinvention. And Kanakavalli has helped rekindle my love for the kanjivaram since then. Recently, I was looking at the gorgeous Valli Muhurtham collection of bridal saris, and I wished that Kanakavalli had been around when I got married 25 years ago!
"This Kanakavalli kanjivaram that I’ve chosen to wear is very special to me. Ahalya helped me choose it several years ago for my brother in law’s wedding reception. I immediately fell in love with the unusual pattern of rectangles on the richly hued silk, embellished with stunning gold temple patterns. Every single person at the reception complimented me on the sari. What I love about Kanakavalli is that each drape is truly unique, and if Ahalya is at the store, she takes so much trouble to help customers find the perfect kanjivaram! Here's wishing Kanakavalli the very best in creating many hundreds of gorgeous kanjivaram weaves, bringing happiness to many a woman for decades to come ."
- Sheila Verghis, as recounted to Aneesha Bangera
EXPLORE SHEILA'S GUEST CURATION HERE