Snapshots of Calcutta

Published: Dec 26, 2012, 09:30 IST | Soma Das |

In the coffee table book, Redeeming Calcutta � A Portrait of India's Imperial Capital, author and Indiana University professor Steve Raymer portrays the different worlds that define Calcutta, and its innate charm and complexity. Soma Das chatted up with Raymer about his new book and the perspective it offers of a city juggling the weight of history in sync with its strides in development

What made you zero in on Calcutta as the subject of this book?
When I was new to National Geographic Magazine in May 1972, I did the rounds of various departments before starting on a career as a staff photographer. In the summer, I helped edit the work of two photographers working on a story about Calcutta. I was in on the final layout and design, agonising over images, accuracy, balance, and finding a way of telling a story about Calcutta that would have some lasting benefit for history. So, I caught the bug early in 1972. As an adult, I have read many books about Calcutta, from the works of Kipling to American author Paul Theroux. I also have many Bengali friends and colleagues who hail from Calcutta.

Built with 121 massive steel cables, the Vidyasagar Setu connects Calcutta with its sister city Howrah. It is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India and one of the 50 longest in the world.

Then, of course, there was my photographer’s curiosity to see the last big mega city in Asia. I have worked in all the others from Delhi to Beijing. The pictures I had seen of Calcutta, especially its decrepit and formerly grand old colonial buildings, stirred an interest in trying to document for posterity some of these last vestiges of empire. In fact, the historic buildings and the sense of the ‘former imperial capital’ were my initial focus. It is almost a cliche to say that Calcutta is stuck in a bit of a time warp, though this is disappearing, but these fed into the idea of documenting a place that was truly distinctive. The longer I stayed in Calcutta, the more I came to appreciate the importance of culture, the intellectual elite, and the rich amalgamation of influences that make Calcutta a blend of Western and South Asian cultures and history.

Chowringhee Road was once compared to Piccadilly in London. Its deterioration began with the Partition of India in 1947, which brought Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. Subsequent waves of migrants have filled every nook along this once-fashionable street. 

What were the challenges you faced and how did you negotiate the city of contrasts?

In many Indian cities today, foreign visitors have to look for the downtrodden, the poor, the social dislocations, and chaos. Not so in Calcutta, where the maelstrom of its chaotic streets erases all distinction between what is public and private. Social problems are in your face. I struggled with how much time and space to devote to these when my project was to paint an inclusive and nuanced portrait of the entire city. Fortunately, I was able to meet a number of senior journalists, academics, and activists who provided access and more importantly, understanding. So, balance was the key. Calcutta is hardly a camera-friendly city. The city motto sometimes seems to be — “No Pictures”. There are police aplenty to tell you what you cannot photograph, from the Howrah Bridge to various public buildings, including the historic Writer’s Building, which was once the headquarters of the East India Company.

Chitpur Road winds through the city centre where Muslim families and Marwari merchants live side by side. From this neighbourhood, sprang the Bengali Renaissance, a reform movement that championed social justice in caste-plagued Calcutta.

And then, there were ordinary citizens who felt that, despite India’s robust democracy and constitution that guarantees a free press, it was their duty to tell me that I couldn’t take photographs in public places. Many organisations refused to work with me to find some common ground, particularly in the historic quarter of Dalhousie Square. So, here I was on my own, to see what I could see from the pavement or to simply not identify myself and snoop around until someone told me to leave, which was the case of the beautiful image, of the restoration of the former Mint or Currency Building for all of India.

Over what period of time were these images shot?
I began work in the summer of 2007 with a one-week scouting trip and finished in the summer of 2011. As you can imagine, trying to keep a project alive on the other side of the world while I have a “day job” as a professor of journalism is no easy trick.

Tens of thousands of Calcutta’s poor bathe from tubewells installed on city streets and lanes. However millions of Calcuttans appear at high risk from high levels of arsenic in ground water.

Was there a conscious attempt to move from the stereotypical images and redefine the city?
My method of doing a city story — I have done Chicago, St. Petersburg (Russia), and Delhi for National Geographic over the years — is to begin with what is doable and work towards what is impossible in terms of access and originality. I started with the obvious landmarks and worked towards the more intimate images of families, faith, the poor, and cultural figures.

A rotting system of open sewers built more than 100 years ago forces passersby to cover their nostrils in the tannery district called Tangra. In China, the Communist Party has done a better job of modernising cities and fighting poverty than the government of West Bengal. 

Which were your favourite photos?
Certainly, the dust jacket images is my favourite. The symmetry and graphic elements of the picture make a reader stop and hopefully appreciate this moment frozen in time. I am also happy with the overall image of Chitpur Road where it intersects Zakaria Street, the double-page image of the protestors, who are so much a part of the labour unrest and the Leftist politics of Calcutta, and the little girls performing Snow White.

Is there a message behind this book?
Calcutta is a great and complex city, and in many ways, perhaps one of the least globalised of the world’s major cities. This is what gives Calcutta its charm and personality. Today, every major Indian city has gigantic shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but not every city has such a sense of history and pride in place and culture. 

The original name of Kolkata — Calcutta — has been retained in the copy to stay true to the book .  

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