Photographer Saibal Das has lived in three cities—Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. Bangalore, he confesses, never quite took hold of his imagination, though he does find plenty in Delhi to photograph. His real muse—inevitably perhaps—is his hometown, Kolkata. “Kolkata has the chaos and the contrast,” he says. “When I go out I see pictures everywhere.” Tales of Chitpore, an exhibition of 45 black-and-white photographs Das shot over the last two years, is his love letter to his hometown.
Life in a metro: (clockwise from top) Kumartuli; The Dispensary; The Actress; Tagore Birthday. Photographs by Saibal Das
Narrow lanes, old crumbling mansions, the vibrant bazaars, the crush of rickshaws and men—the “old city” area of any Indian metropolis offers an irresistible and, often, a naked display of life in all its variety. Lying on either side of Chitpur Road (now renamed Rabindra Sarani) that runs parallel to the Ganga, the closely packed neighbourhoods are perhaps the oldest in Kolkata, predating the arrival of the British by a good century or two. “It is very dirty, very narrow, people jostling,” admits Das. “But if you try to explore and go beyond, you’ll find all kinds of people, from the very rich to the very poor—migrants from Bihar and UP, the Chinese, Marwaris.”
One glance at his photographs and we know what draws him to the place. It is all there—the past lying heavily on the present, while also commingling with it to create rich textures that seem to recall and sum up the story of India itself.
It could be the setting and perhaps an approach to reality that is distinctly, if not uniquely, Bengali but what stands out in these images is the lack of a clear boundary between the “past” and “present”—they seem to become mere labels in our minds. The large and typically loud Coca-Cola signage doesn’t intrude into the quiet scene inside a temple next door but seems to blend with it—both Chitpur, and Das’ eye, challenge preconceived notions.
Kumartuli, the basti of idol makers, is situated here, and the images of Durga idols in different stages of completion—a figure of straw; naked clay figure; painted but still unclothed; and, finally, decked out in full resplendence—underscore not just her vital and central presence in the overall scheme of things in Chitpur and beyond, but also the unity of the past and present.
And so, while many of the settings here could make for ideal sepia-toned meditations on a slice of the past, there is little that is elegiac about these photos. To most of us (and to Das) the frame of the doctor’s clinic with its swivel doors is a window into the past, but this clinic is clearly functioning today and, in a manner of speaking, unselfconsciously so.
An occasional shot of an old building or an idyll by the river does convey decay and languor, but these are exceptions. The energy and industry captured on its streets, shops, crèches, green rooms and places of worship celebrate life and reflect a robust pride in a way of living that is nowhere near disappearing.
Organized by Tasveer, Tales of Chitpore is showing at Gallery Art Motif, F-231 C, Lado Sarai, New Delhi, until 16 August.