The human eye often detects beauty—and apprehends larger truths—in decay. Just like an ancient ruin, images of an abandoned factory that is going to seed can lead to a new awareness of ourselves and our world. Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya spent six months in 2009 taking photographs at the National Instruments Ltd (NIL) manufacturing unit housed in a 10-acre compound in Jadavpur, Kolkata.
The factory was inaugurated in 1957; it ceased production in the early 1990s and was eventually declared “sick”. Most of its 5,000 employees took “voluntary retirement” and in January 2009, the premises were handed over to Jadavpur University (JU). Work on building a new university campus is set to begin there now.
In June 2009, before any work commenced at the site, the department of film studies at JU invited Mitra and Bhattacharya—both JU graduates who are now pursuing interests in art, film and photography—to take a look. “We found it fascinating. It seemed like people just got up and left one fine morning,” Mitra says.
The place held a special significance for them because of its association with the history of camera manufacturing in India. National 35, the 35mm camera, used to be made here, and the development of India’s first, locally made SLR camera was under way when the unit was shut down.
Moinak Biswas, a professor at the film studies department which initiated the project, talks about his first visit to the factory. “I was stunned,” he says. “It seemed like a frozen moment from our industrial past and history of photography.” The fact that NIL’s Jadavpur unit was the centre of India’s indigenous camera-manufacturing effort was a key reason why its premises were thrown open for visual archiving.
Requiem: (from top)Images from the series, The Archaeology of Absence, Temp Mort, Autopsy of the Great Indian Camera. Photographs courtesy Madhuban Mitra and Manas Bhattacharya/Photoink
Mitra recalls how the camera assembly unit was full of rusting and decaying spare parts and how the buildings, constructed in the late 1950s, had big windows and doors that let in plenty of natural light. She found she and Bhattacharya were spending a lot of time there, gradually becoming quite familiar with the place.
She describes their six-month project photographing the factory as an elegy to the analogue camera (analogue refers to cameras that—unlike the now ubiquitous digital cameras—use a roll of film). Mitra feels compelled to explain that they used digital cameras for the project because of the “time constraint”.
The fruits of their labour—colour photographs and some very innovative “photo films”—are currently on display at an exhibition Through a Lens, Darkly, at the Photoink gallery in New Delhi. With their rich texture and adroit play of light and shadows, the photos seem to luxuriate in the bleakness and decay. Images of abandoned work tables and lathe machines, rusting camera-body shells, cobwebbed office rooms, still wall clocks and switchboards of 1960s vintage, all set against peeling walls and empty, decrepit halls, tell a larger story—the death of the socialist vision in which PSUs (public sector units) occupied the commanding heights of India’s economy and were supposed to usher in an era of self-sufficient and equitable prosperity.
The images also document the personal traces left behind by workers. “We found that people created pockets of privacy and belonging in large worksheds,” Mitra says. “Things such as playing cards, letters, shirts in cupboards.” The entire frame of one photograph is occupied by a close-up of a love letter, in neat, handwritten Bengali, that was found in the factory.
Today, a large board announcing the upcoming JU campus stands on the periphery of the NIL compound. Inside, there is little activity barring the 14-odd guards who work in shifts. Security person Lakshmikanta Mal says the place last came alive when actor Vidya Balan was here to shoot for the yet-to-release film Kahani.
The foundation stone embedded in the wall next to the foyer outlines NIL’s Nehruvian roots. It was laid in 1953 and states that the guest of honour was K.C. Reddy, then Union minister for production. The now defunct ministry of production harks back to another era, as do the two dust-covered Ambassador cars standing nearby, with flattened tyres and 1960s registration numbers.
The employee roster, in fading print on yellowed paper, is still pasted on a noticeboard. And some words in Bengali can still be made out on a torn and faded political poster—shramik (workers), paribartan (change), utkhyat (eviction), bandho (closed), prokolpo (project)—aptly evoking the strident spirit of West Bengal’s recent industrial history.
Right next to the main gate is the door with the sign “Receiving Counter for Repair Instruments—Repair of optical, optomechanical instruments, including cameras and binoculars of all make undertaken.” The door—bearing the legend “No entry without business”— remains firmly bolted; and the lock on it has a coat of rust.
Mitra recalls how, while they were working on the project, people would still come to get their cameras repaired, unaware that the facility had shut down.
Biswas, who has co-directed the Bengali film Sthaniyo Sangbad, admits that his involvement with the NIL project, just like the subject matter of his film, is linked to a deep sense of loss. “Like NIL, many PSUs started floundering from the 1980s. With the coming of liberalization and Manmohan Singh, all of them have been allowed to wither away. They have made way for housing complexes and shopping malls.”
Through a Lens, Darkly will be on display at the Photoink gallery, New Delhi, until 12 February. For details, log on to www.photoink.net