On our fourth meeting, Kushal Ray agrees, at last, to show the final instalment of the work he has been doing for 10 years—a pictorial chronicling of the everyday existence and relationships of an ordinary south Kolkata joint family.
Ray has invested 300 rolls of black and white film, photographing as an insider-outsider member of the Kalighat-based family, his frames carrying the narrative of bonding, dissonance, death, disintegration and the seemingly trite daily details of the Chatterjee household.
Spotlight: (left) Ray has followed every death and important event in the Chatterjee family for the last 10 years; his book is dedicated to the family’s matriarch Manju.
As we talk, Ray brings out a photograph from one of the many folders that hold the 8,000-odd photographs. It makes an uncharacteristically personal declaration. It is a self-timed close-up of the frail hand of cancer-stricken Manju Chatterjee, the matriarch of the family, wrapped within the photographer’s caring touch, a foil of medicine and inhaler surrounding the unison of hands and emotions. The scene is lit up by a fleck of warm light.
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As Ray shows the photographs, his voice choking, it becomes apparent that his compassionate core has also been invested in the project.
It’s the kind of artistic involvement which first drew art curator and writer Ina Puri to Ray’s work, Family Matters. Having revived the project from the cold storage of a publishing house in New Delhi, Puri is now the curator and editor of author Kunal Basu’s next work of fiction, Intimacies, based on Ray’s photographs. “I was completely taken in by the photographer’s obsession with the family and the fact that he has spent so many years with them. There are no superheroes in his work, just a regular middle-class home whose lives have plateaued off to nothingness. We often tend to not notice these people,” Puri says, of the book expected to be published by Delhi-based Niyogi Books later this year.
As she delves deeper, and the conversation veers towards the gradual disintegration of the once commonplace joint family system in Kolkata and elsewhere, Puri finds herself unwittingly returning to her childhood, having lived in a joint family in north Kolkata’s Wellington Square—the Lahiri (her maiden Bengali surname) household inclusive enough to accommodate her father, uncles, aunts, sisters and cousins; where a single mattress would serve as the common bed for the children; a single television set would suffice; the cousins would be fed a common lunch by an aunt; and “simple joys” were to be had before Puri’s parents shifted to Mumbai “and everything fell apart”.
“Possibly because those days mean so much to me, I don’t even want to remember them. Now that I’m talking about my childhood, it is possible that the joint family photographs connected with me at some level,” she says over the phone from Delhi. “Of course, we have a better lifestyle now, but relationships have become impersonal. I think this is the price we have to pay for our posh modern lives.”
Growing up in a large colonial-era Lake Market house, Ray’s early introduction to the Chatterjee family was through his friend Apurba, part of the 11-member family and Ray’s partner on the football field. Born in 1960, Ray had lost his parents—the well-known Bengali author and journalist at The Statesman, Ashim Ray, and mother Gita—by 1986. It was a phase when his own world, as a struggling artist, was inspired by the art of Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Bresson and Eugene Smith.
Montage: (clockwise from top left) The extended Chatterjee family meets at the ancestral home; Manju, bedridden, writing her diary; Teesta, the most loved member of the family, with elders (years after this photograph was taken, Teesta left for the US with her mother and stepfather); Manju tends to Muni, the eldest member of the family, during the last days of her life (Ray says that when Manju was diagnosed with cancer some years later, he used to give her company at her bedside while other family members were at work); the family backyard; and Muni, another member and the family cat, which features in many of Ray’s images.
Ray recalls the “tension” in the Lake Market house where he was staying with his parents and extended family, resulting from what he reasons were his mother’s stellar good looks; the distance between family members became unbridgeable with the demise of his parents.
As his own family relationships were falling apart, Ray was forging newer and stronger relationships at his friend Apurba’s home. In time, Ray, having already quit his nine-year-old job as a journalist with The Telegraph to purse a career in photography, would leave his own house.
He went on to spend the next four years living with the Chatterjees. The large family, living within modest quarters and financial means, made room for Ray, the insider-outsider with a camera.
“After a photography trip to Ladakh in 1998, I came down with tuberculosis and had to be hospitalized and treated over 14 months. Manju Chatterjee helped me recover. It was in 1999 that I started work on Family Matters,” Ray says, as we sift through photographs at his Lake Market house.
In his portion of the house, Ray lives the life of a bachelor—walls, both physical and mental, having come up between him and the existing members of his erstwhile extended family. “It is when I came down with a second bout of TB (tuberculosis), and when my own family members protested against my staying in the house, that I moved into the Chatterjee home. There, nobody objected to having me around. I recovered, but stayed on for four years, photographing the members. I was inspired by Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters and didn’t want my photography to be decorative. It is a passion I wanted to channelize towards my photography and painting,” says the trained artist, who has previously held two solo painting exhibitions, including Unsuccessful Men at Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Arts.
In the present: Ray (perched on the table) photographed with members of the Chatterjee family at their home in Kalighat, Kolkata.
In photograph after photograph, Ray’s works speak of a world of overlapping physical spaces, where characters joylessly file through life in the crowded 1,800 sq. ft house. Ray presents a relentlessly bleak and unadorned vision, his photography largely de-stylized and shying away from creating any added sense of drama. It is only the presence of Teesta—the shirtless six-year-old girl in the house when Ray started Family Matters, whose growing up provides an interesting time frame to the project—that occasionally provokes merriment among members. At other times, it is all about tying loose ends, making ends meet.
In a simple yet tender photograph, Ray documents yet another upheaval in a family coping with the loss of its eldest member, Muni, who was faithfully attended to by the spinster siblings Manju and Leena, and the moving out of Anupam, a successful advertising executive, to a nuclear family set-up with his wife and son. In the photograph, Teesta, now well into her teens, is seen at the hospital bedside of a cancer-ridden Manju, tentatively announcing her imminent departure for the US to live with her mother and stepfather.
It is when Manju succumbs to cancer in February 2009 that Ray eventually wills himself to end the project, with a panoramic shot of Manju’s room taken with his big-format Mamiya RB67 camera—the open windows letting in the early morning light, the thin fluttering curtains, the books which engaged the mind of the retired philosophy teacher in a girls’ college, the table where she religiously wrote her diary, her bed and an overtly crushing sense of loss. “When I first came to know of her life-threatening lung cancer, I was in turmoil and had to be treated by a psychiatrist. She is the person who took me into the house, encouraged me to keep photographing, and occasionally bought me film rolls when I was hard up on funds. After her death, there was no reason to continue,” says Ray.
Understandably, the book will be dedicated to Manju—a strong-willed lady who held the reins of the family, taught underprivileged children after retirement and maintained a diary till the end; a voracious reader who kept herself updated with art and cultural trends, would get livid enough to shoot off letters to newspapers on incidents involving the death of Rizwanur Rahman (a computer graphics teacher whose marriage to a girl from a Marwari business family allegedly led to his unnatural death in 2007) and the police firing at Nandigram, and held male chauvinists and rigid feminists in equal contempt.
“I was struck by Ray’s complete lack of assumptions about his subject. He wasn’t trying to take ‘gritty’ or ‘realistic’ pictures; not even trying to be a social documentarist or simply a voyeur. His photographs were acts of intimacy. There is much there—characters; the smell of shared space; unspoken words; ticking clocks and whirring fans, telling clues to many stories. I’ll use them to lend wings to my imagination,” emails Basu, between his work as a Reader at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
Born into a joint family in north Kolkata and raised in a nuclear family, Basu doesn’t want to comment on the sociocultural relevance of Ray’s work. Yet the backdrop is the break-up of the extended north Kolkata families into nuclear families who have settled in mushrooming city high-rise apartments. He adds: “A book like this is created with the ‘particular’ in mind, not the general. Viewers, of course, might draw their own conclusions. Although it isn’t intended to be a sociological treatise, nothing prevents it from being interpreted variously.”
Bikash Niyogi of Niyogi Books, though, contends that the proposed 250-page book will speak for all those people distanced from the earlier joint family set-up. Having seen his sprawling family house in Bengal’s Hooghly district reduced to being home to a mere 20-odd members from the 100-strong of his childhood, Niyogi wants the story of the Chatterjees to be told without delay. There has already been a long hiatus. It was in 2008 that sociologist and author Ashis Nandy evinced interest in writing a long essay taking off on Family Matters and recommendations came in from art and photography professionals such as Shahidul Alam, Sunil Gupta and Radhika Singh. While Alam inspired Ray to continue his work and selected his photographs for digital presentation at last year’s Chobi Mela photography exhibition in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Gupta and Singh were curators when Ray’s photographs were exhibited at Relative Values: Some Current Trends in Indian Photography, at the University of Southampton, UK, and at Click! Contemporary Photography in India, in New Delhi and London, in 2008.
Having known Ray and worked with him for close to two decades, Suvendu Chatterjee, director of new media and photography agency Drik India, admits that he was initially ambivalent about Ray’s project. But having witnessed the photographer’s level of commitment and his layered understanding of visual arts, especially his strong artistic affiliation towards the work of America-born Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson, who is known for his documentation of personal spaces in New York, Suvendu realizes that Family Matters adheres to the changing dialect of photography.
“These days, photography is not just about form or content. It demands integration of the photographer with the subject. Ray attains that, which also propels his work to reach a poetic perch rarely achieved in photography,” he says.
Quite so, for the frames bear testimony to the level of mental and physical assimilation achieved by Ray at the Chatterjee home, seemingly rendering his camera invisible to the members. This involvement possibly explains why the mild-mannered and low-profile photographer didn’t easily display his photographs—especially the intensely personal second half of the series leading up to Manju’s death, when the heightened emotion is all too evident in the photographs.
Egged on by Manju, Ray faithfully kept shooting—Manju returning home after her first session of chemotherapy, writing her diary in bed; angry at an unresponsive doctor; grim-faced after 30 rounds of radiotherapy; meeting Teesta for the final time at the nursing home; a small hand-held mirror reflecting an expression burdened by the imminence of her fate; responding to nature’s call in her room when she could no longer go to the toilet; a former colleague touching her face moments before her death.
It is an uncharacteristically motion-blurred frame that finally pronounces the news of Manju’s death.
Unlike most others involved in Intimacies, the book project, novelist Amit Chaudhuri says he is “not interested in seeing the photographs as sociological documents on the joint family system”. He says he lived in an extended family only during vacations and argues that considering the inner tensions in a joint family, only a little child would find the atmosphere magical.
So why does Chaudhuri consider Ray’s work “one of the most important artistic achievements to come out of Calcutta in a very long time”? He explains: “The family Ray has looked at is lower middle class and not representative of the old Bengali bhadralok society. It is the kind of post-1980s family whose lives have been shaped by the Calcutta under 30 years of Left rule. It’s a post-Satyajit Ray world, which doesn’t evoke the kind of magic that photographers like Raghu Rai or Raghubir Singh could. It’s a society between the bhadralok and the working class, and which has been rarely mentioned in films or literature. For me, this kind of family should be made the centre of a chronicle of a moment in time.”
This has also prompted him to carry a selection of Ray’s photographs to a major artistic-literary conference to be held in June at the University of East Anglia, in the UK. Chaudhuri’s curatorial text will accompany the photographs.
Photographs by Kushal Ray
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