Out of an immensely poetic body of work, the great Hungarian photographer André Kertész’s book On Reading is particularly charming. It has a photograph from 1926 in which Kertész sets his lens on a patch of roofs in the romantic Latin quarter of Paris. He nudges readers to finally notice a man reading a newspaper after letting their eyes wander across the frame—one that expresses an obvious love for geometry inspired by the De Stijl movement of that time. The book, first published in 1971, wasn’t a significant departure from Kertész’s way of seeing, but, rather, a delicate study of one of the simplest joys of life—of reading. From libraries to streets and into people’s bedrooms, Kertész illustrated the love of books through readers and the spaces they read in.
Closer home in Mumbai, photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri has been fascinated, for over a decade, by the public statues seen holding books or reading. And the year 2000 saw the beginnings of a close association with writer and journalist Jerry Pinto, who hired Chaudhuri as photo editor at Traveljini.com. Over the years, as colleagues and friends, they travelled and spoke about books and reading. “The loss of the habit of reading—we used to talk about it a lot. A common lament,” says Chaudhuri.
A couple of years ago, the board of trustees of the People’s Free Reading Room and Library in Mumbai thought Pinto would make a fine addition to their number as one of the existing members wanted to resign. “I think every library is a writer’s dream and a writer’s nightmare. You see thousands of books you have not read and you see thousands of authors whose names you have never heard of and whose books you do not want to read. This is your fate—to be part of this shouting,” says Pinto.
Chaudhuri first visited the library, an old building opposite the famous bakery Kyani & Co. in Dhobi Talao, in 1994, while he was at The Sunday Observer. He remembers noticing a huge shelf with bound volumes of Punch magazine, which had recently shut shop. “When Jerry told me about being on the board of trustees, my first thought was to go and shoot the library. Not the interiors though, something else,” he says. When he began revisiting the library after a gap of two decades, he noticed the shelf with the Punch magazines. They were still there, only covered in dust.
As he browsed through 35,000-odd books, some old and moth-eaten, Chaudhuri was seeking a kind of visual drama that would initiate a series of photographs. “As repositories of memories, libraries also reveal their fragilities,” Chaudhuri says. This is how the photo project In The City, A Library, a collaboration with Pinto, began: It will be exhibited from 9 March at Project 88, Mumbai, as part of the FOCUS Photography Festival 2017. Both Pinto and Chaudhuri are concerned with time and how books respond to it. “It’s a story about the library, told through the books in the collection,” says Chaudhuri. Considered one of the older public libraries in India, the People’s Free Reading Room and Library also reportedly hosted Mahatma Gandhi’s first appearance in the city.
The library as a bearer of public and personal histories is crucial to the collaboration. “The library has much that is rare and valuable, not because the books are old but because they were often privately printed and some copies made available only to libraries and friends by the writers. These include memoirs, travel books, books about institutions such as charitable clinics and schools. This is what fascinates me about the world of books; that there is always another layer, a subterranean layer often that throws up other ideas and other ways of looking at the city,” says Pinto.
Chaudhuri and Pinto spent a year and a half digging deep into the collection and found things people had left behind in the books. From a man’s scribblings about homoeopathy in every book that he borrowed to finding tram tickets (something Chaudhuri had never seen before), these personal imprints started giving structure to the project. There was also a whole cupboard stashed with books on debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. They had a sense of bringing to the fore what was lost and what could be used to construct another history of the city. “I found (businessman) Premchand Roychand’s books (the Rajabai Tower was named after his mother) bearing his personalized stamps. People might say that personal histories are of little relevance to a larger reading of the city, but who’s to say what isn’t or what is?” asks Chaudhuri.
Pinto, on the other hand, was looking at the collection from different levels. “Some of these were purely administrative, some of these were connoisseurial; but when Chirodeep began to dream up this project—and he is the dreamcatcher on the team—I began to look at the books as artefacts and that brought about another way of looking.” And, indeed, the collaboration underlines just that. The photographs aren’t just visual markers, they are a fine reading of the books and the people who owned them, donated them and turned the pages.
In Chaudhuri’s photographs, found objects, jottings and drawings from within the books become props for his composition. His images lend the books a second life. In his still-life images, Chaudhuri unfurls the poetry of pages turned yellow, handwritten postcards, mechanical drawings and bookworm infestations. As the two collaborators think of ways to take the project further, it is clear that the books sleeping on those old, wooden shelves have found their way back into the world.
Paroma Mukherjee is an independent photographer and photo editor based in New Delhi.