Homecoming for Pujos

Frenzied celebrations and vibrancy around Durga Puja makes it one of the more photogenic festivals. But photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri decided to give the urbane celebrations a miss and instead, opted to document the Durga Pujas in his hometown, Amadpur, in West Bengal.

In the process, he made trips for twelve years, shooting photographs at leisure. These visits have been compiled into his first solo book, A Village In Bengal, which is the culmination of the journey. By documenting his extended family while they take part in the celebrations, Chaudhuri captures the Probashi (migrant) Bengali’s insider-outsider dilemma, his return to his roots, and the simple traditional side to the Puja.

The book, in which the village is a character, starts off with an essay and is filled with black and white images minus captions, giving it a cinematic flow. Chaudhuri, who has been a photographer for over two decades, was formerly National Photo Editor of a cultural events magazine and currently lectures at Sophia Polytechnic.

What was the inspiration behind A Village in Bengal?
I first visited my ancestral village as a 16-year-old and returned after a gap of some years, during the Durga Pujo, once I became a photographer. I had grown up in Mumbai and had only been a part of the sarvajanik Pujos celebrated here by Probashi Bengalis. So, I was not prepared for what I encountered in the village, which was a more traditional affair. Moreover, the village, with its paddy fields, ponds, bamboo groves, terracotta temples were as exotic as it could be. I saw photographic possibilities everywhere; I was shooting stray pictures and had no sense of the fact that this could be developed into a story of this nature. I fell in love, gradually.

Does the book have a message for the readers?
There is no conscious effort from my part to pass any message to my audience though one may discover subtexts. This is a simple story of one family, who were landed gentry at a certain point, and who continue a Durga Pujo tradition that goes back to more than two centuries. Its members, many of whom are scattered all over the world, gather in this village for five days of a festival, which acts as a glue that binds them.

Was there a reason why images do not have captions?
Captions are about specifics; this work is not an objective record of rural Bengal or even of this village. It’s a portrait of how I experienced this place during my visits there. I felt things had to be impressionistic, more open-ended. In some ways I might agree with the film analogy. I have watched the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa’s by switching off the subtitles and there are still things that I grasp. But I still don’t assimilate in quite the same way that his Japanese audience does. Eventually, I chose to have a long essay to act like a parallel narrative to that of the pictures. Together, they complete the story. Captioning would have made things very clunky.

Was there a reason why you chose a black and white format for this book?
I started shooting in Amadpur when I was finding my feet in photography, and was very raw when it came to grasping certain technicalities. Shooting in colour was certainly one of them. In a few years I realised that the silence which one encounters in rural Bengal would have to be a very important aspect, much like a dominant character in my story, and so felt that colour wouldn’t help my cause.

Any reason why this book took 12 years to complete?
My world was far removed from the one I was trying to photograph — from the complexity of a metropolis to a simpler milieu of a rural setting. So, this work continued till I was satisfied that I had created a well-constructed portrait of my village.

Does the book offer a plea for a return to the simple native town Pujo instead of the commercial Pujo?
Not really. Most such documentations in India showing a more traditional way of life has a lament hidden in them and the assumption that the old was a better time. That’s a rather simplistic way of looking at things. Having said that, a record such as this, now seems important, moving away from its mere personal relevance to a greater one, in a more public domain. Again, this doesn’t have to be interpreted as a lament. After all, everything changes, sometimes violently and sometimes they creep up silently and take over without one realising till the old has all but disappeared.

Is the book meant to document the original Pujo celebrations for posterity?
Whether it does or not will depend not just on the work but also on what place this way of life occupies in people’s memories in the future. The realist in me doesn’t see a survival of this tradition in our home beyond a few decades though the optimist in me would like to believe otherwise. But that may simply be because I love it so much.

What were some of the challenges along the way?
One of the toughest things was to suppress the tendency, which most photographers have, of showing off one’s skill. I became extremely aware of the silence of the settings I was photographing and retaining that was very critical to the success of my portrait. This meant that I had to desist from shooting over-dramatic and gimmicky pictures. The pictures had to be very matter-of-fact. Above all this was the fact that I was not very familiar with the place and also, in the beginning, an outsider in my own family.

Any plans to write another book?
I have been commissioned to shoot for a book on the fast disappearing world of typewriters. This is a collaboration like the eight other books I have done, previously. But I have no plans, as of now, for another solo work.

This is one of Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s favourite images. It shows the Shashti (sixth day) worship of the banana plant. “In terms of pure visual aesthetics the Kola Bou Chaan is special where you see the first big ritual of Pujo being performed on the banks of the dighi where the priests are worshipping a banana plant,” he says.

A Village in Bengal, Chirodeep Chaudhuri,
Pan Macmillan, Rs 2,499

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