Twenty-one years after photographer Raghu Rai’s first book on the city, most jingle-jangle tin buses have made way for air-suspension, even air-conditioned, public transport. Glass-topped trams ply on concretized tram lines while swankier cars swish past the Ambassador. Post-plasma viewing experiences have replaced Uptron TV and terry-cotton bell-bottoms have been swapped for frayed denim. Even communism—a constant fellow traveller in the city’s contemporary life and a motif in Rai’s earlier book—has got some serious competition.
In the interregnum between Rai’s Calcutta, released in 1989, and his forthcoming Calcutta, Kolkata: It Never Begins… Never Ends…, to be released in September, it is not insignificant that Calcutta has become Kolkata—a city that is forcefully re-emerging from the debris and hubris of its colonial past. For the much-feted photojournalist though, the city’s present is decidedly about the continuation of its past.
Frames (clockwise from top left) Wrestlers and tree roots near Howrah; a painter at Esplanade; carrying sand across the Hooghly. Photographs: Raghu Rai
Rai’s association with the city began in the late 1960s when he covered the Bangladeshi refugee influx as a photographer with the Kolkata-based daily The Statesman. If Mother Teresa, on whom Rai has produced three books, has been his biggest source of inspiration, Kolkata too has played its part. “No other city is as overpowering and expressive,” says the 68-year-old Magnum photographer. “However much you photograph Calcutta, it isn’t enough.”
The artisans’ colony in Kumartuli; and Central Avenue. Photographs: Raghu Rai
Both in his words and throughout the 150-page coffee-table book, it’s still largely Calcutta—the old city of glorious colonial crumble, the grit of migrants, the coup of human spirit over penury, the exercise of tradition, the river front, warts and all. Rai has sourced “40%” of the photographs from his previous book, thus lending to Calcutta, Kolkata (Timeless Books) an air of recycled predictability, despite the stunning candidness of frozen moments.
In the few frames where he has strayed from old city areas, such as the photograph of elderly and young Bengali ladies in cotton saris talking on their mobile phones in the glass-and-glitz confines of a shopping mall, the result is both sociologically illuminating and aesthetically characteristic of Rai’s photography.
It is a pity that spelling errors (Chourangee for Chowringhee, Barbon Road for Brabourne Road, filsh market for fish market, among others) indicate the rashness of putting together a book where the publisher’s address too is misspelt (46, Housing Soceity).
If Rai has avoided documenting the city’s many social and physical shifts, he indicates a deliberate artistic ploy. On a shooting trip to Kolkata in late 2004, Rai had gone back to the familiar spaces that reappear in his forthcoming book: the artisans’ district of Kumartuli (the traditional potters’ colony is now being shifted to a sanitized built-up area) and the vast green expanse of the Maidan, from where Rai has presented charming city situations—families out on walks, children playing football and trapeze artists at work.
At Kumartuli, a group of boisterous Spanish tourists broke the calm studio atmosphere, but couldn’t dent Rai’s opaque concentration while trying out a new digital SLR. At the Maidan, he exhibited a childlike curiosity while meeting migrants from Bihar. It was while crossing the then newly constructed Park Street flyover, which has blocked the earlier undisturbed views of the Maidan and elegant colonial façades, that I popped the question: “What do you think of Kolkata’s changing cityscape?” He chewed on the question, eyebrows knitted. “Calcutta is beginning to look a bit like Delhi,” he finally mentioned, with the remorseful temper of an artist being slowly dispossessed of his muse.
“All bloody Indian metro cities are beginning to look alike,” he says when I ask him the same question now over the phone, six years later—when Kolkata has many more malls and flyovers to flaunt. “The architecture and aesthetics are borrowed and Indian cities are trying to be second-hand versions of Singapore and Hong Kong. Globalization, after all, has no identity of its own.”
The bulk of Calcutta, he adds, continues to maintain its architectural and social heritage. “Bengalis are a very emotional people and believe in the past and in relationships. Nowhere else in India will you find doors being opened to poor families from villages. The city was also home to the two greatest Indians, Mother Teresa and Satyajit Ray,” says Rai. The forthcoming book, understandably, begins and ends with portraits of the two.
“Traditional Bengali culture also blends well with the old architecture and as a creative person it’s my right to document certain aspects,” Rai responds to a long-held criticism of his portrayal of the city. “After all, I don’t work for the government that I have to flog such modernity.”
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