What is the aftermath of Communism like? A Kolkata photographer found an answer in the Polish town of Gdansk
During a winter residency in 2015 at Gdansk City Gallery, Poland, Kolkata-based photographer Ronny Sen was shown a collection of love letters. Written by a sailor during World War II, the letters were addressed to a married woman; the collection ended with two newspaper clippings — one stating how the sailor’s ship had been captured by Somali pirates, and another, dated four years later, on how the ship had been released. Did the sailor make it back home to Gdansk? What would he find there so many years later? Did he try to reunite with his lost love?
Untitled #8 from Ronny Sen’s series New World Chronicles in an Old World Colour
These were questions that Sen asked himself during his encounter with Gdansk, a city that was once annexed by Nazi Germany. “It is one of the reasons why old women feature in this series,” he says, drawing attention to his series of 25 works, titled New World Chronicles in an Old World Colour, made during the residency. Born into a family of Communists in Silchar, Assam, and evoking recent student politics across the country, Sen says that it was but natural that he went looking for traces of the Communism stories he had heard as a child.
“In Kolkata, we still talk nostalgically about the Communist movement, but Poland seems to have moved on,” he says. However, the crucial difference Sen learnt is this: Kolkata has laid to neglect its old institutions like Roxy Cinema and, Bourne and Shepherd. Gdansk, on the other hand, has rebuilt its old institutions, brick by brick, despite ravage during World War II. The re-building, which mimicked the old city as it had been, made sure that the German influence was done away with. The old years seemed to live on in Gdansk.
The search for a lost Communist era in contemporary Poland may sound documentarian, but Sen’s series, is cinematic and fictional. “The story of Communism or any other people’s movement is reduced and contained at the level of daily news. We can’t seem to move beyond images of rallies and stone-pelters,” says Sen. Shadowy figures and overtones of melancholia pervade his work but brushing up your knowledge of Poland and the Nazis is intended. There might be those who feel that the aftermath of Communism is just so, and other viewers who may be led to think that this wintry look is too obvious a way of looking at Eastern Europe.
His work, he feels, draws the bridge between two cities, which once shared a communist history. Unlike many of his peers who have left home for better prospects, Sen has stuck on with Kolkata. “I haven’t betrayed my city. I am suffering with it,” he says.
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