Two photo books attempt to capture the spirit of a city that has always been vibrantly alive.
Two pictorial books on the history and sacred geography of Kolkata have been published by Niyogi Books, a press which has always had a special interest in the city. In Calcutta 1940-70, Lila Patel brings us the work of Jayant Patel, a frame-by-frame documentary of the period in which the city changed from the mercantile capital of British India to the cultural capital of independent India, and went swiftly into decline with the flight of capital from violent trade unionism promoted by the CPI-M, and the rise of Naxalism. Yes, indeed, there were urban Naxalites at the time. Calcutta fairly teemed with them. Now, of course, the term references a ridiculous myth.
Patel’s camera had special insight because Bombay Photo Stores, the iconic studio on Park Street run by his family, was commissioned to cover government events in the city. So, while he did some magnificent street photography, he also has photographs of Madame Kai-Shek sitting down to a thali dinner, on the floor, with Jawaharlal Nehru and the Birla family. His pictures are accompanied by text by Soumitra Das and a foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who had served as governor of West Bengal, and had the extraordinary habit of switching off the lights and fans at Raj Bhavan in concert with the city’s load-shedding schedule, a well-known innovation of the Left, to show his solidarity with the people. Patel’s book includes numerous pictures of Raj Bhavan, including one from 1947, showing a crowd at the gates, presumably to protest something or the other.
He also shows the buildings which surround Raj Bhavan, including the Esplanade Mansion, a fantastic art nouveau apartment building which David Joseph Ezra put up in 1910. The picture, taken in 1945, shows a passing tramcar carrying an advertisement for Dodge cars. And there’s the High Court, the oldest in India and the fulcrum of a traditional put-down of the people of East Bengal, now Bangladesh — “Bangal ke High Court dekhano”. It implied that people from those parts, who came to the imperial capital to see the sights, were so rustic that you could show them any old building and pass it off as the High Court.
Mala Mukerjee’s Where Gods Reside, a sacred geography of Kolkata complete with a folding map and text by Jael Silliman, shares the same space that Patel stalked before her, and, sometimes, their paths intersect. For instance, while she focuses her camera on the frescoes and the magnificent stained glass of St Paul’s Cathedral, Patel has Queen Elizabeth II leaving the church in an open-top limo in 1961.
Where Gods Reside is not brilliantly produced — it’s all colour, unlike Patel’s monochromes, and colour correction is wanting. Very odd, because the technicians at Niyogi Press are among the best in the business. But it breaks new ground because it is cross-denominational. There is no dearth of books on Kolkata’s religious architecture, but almost all works focus on specific faiths. It is rare to find churches, synagogues, temples and mosques in a single volume. They represent separate political strands. The mosques remind us that the families of Tipu Sultan and Wajid Ali Shah — the bugaboo and the victim of the East India Company respectively — were exiled to Calcutta. The churches and synagogues speak of imperial and mercantile power. And the temples, including the most important one at Kalighat, are from a far older tradition, waypoints on an ancient pilgrim trail that went all the way down to the kumbh mela at Sagar Island.
Mukerjee and Silliman’s book also records shrines that are falling off the map, and those which are making their presence felt in the very smallest way — the wayside ones found all over West Bengal, a tradition seen worldwide in ancient times, but now almost dead elsewhere. Among those which are vanishing is the Chinese tradition, which began when the Chinese trader Tong Achew made landfall in the 18th century. He is commemorated at Achhipur, still the most important pilgrimage for the city’s Kuomintang community. Where Gods Reside features the Sea Ip Church in the heart of the city. The name means “four”, commemorating the immigrants of four districts of Guangdong who established it. Many Chinese headed for India to flee Chairman Mao’s Long March, which explains why Madame Kai-Shek dined with Nehru in Calcutta.
The city was the meeting point of networks of trade and politics from the beginning of the age of exploration to the beginning of our own time, when it self-selected to be a backwater of modern history. It remains a living echo of times past, a landscape that many cameras have recorded, and many pens have described, and will continue to do so. These two books, with pictures almost 50 years apart, chronicle a city that has always been vibrantly alive, and famously refused to die.
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