Snapshots of Calcutta
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.
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.
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.
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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