It is intriguing to find a photography book, significantly titled Redeeming Calcutta: A Portrait of India’s Imperial Capital, with a visual of a hand-pulled rickshaw on the cover.

Introduced to the city by Chinese traders well over a century back, the hand-pulled rickshaw has been the proverbial albatross around Kolkata’s visual and literary representation. As one of the last major cities in the world to make large-scale use of the Japanese transportation model of one human being pulling another, the rickety rickshaw has been the most-used—and much-abused—imagery of a city portrayed sometimes as a medieval metaphor.

From French film-maker Louis Malle and photographer Raghu Rai to writer Dominique Lapierre, the protagonist of whose iconic novel The City of Joy is a rickshaw-puller, the two-wheeled contraption has lived through keen documentation and survived multiple attempts at a blanket ban. An important collective voice during the public debate over the banning of rickshaws invariably asks for alternative livelihoods and rehabilitation of the Bihari migrants who are the dominant force among Kolkata’s rickshaw-pullers—a subtext to the city’s ability to lend voice to every human quandary, but one which is often ignored by creative work that equates rickshaw-pulling with the load of poverty (“beasts of burden", as a description reads in Redeeming Calcutta).

Redeeming Calcutta—A Portrait of India’s Imperial Capital: Oxford University Press, 208 pages, Rs3,650
Redeeming Calcutta—A Portrait of India’s Imperial Capital: Oxford University Press, 208 pages, Rs3,650

In his well-researched introduction, Raymer, who teaches visual journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington, US, writes effusively about the city. Quoting United Nations’ forecasts, the introduction says that Kolkata is likely to be the eighth largest city in the world by metropolitan population by 2025, preceded by Tokyo, Mumbai, Delhi, Dhaka, São Paulo, Mexico City and New York-Newark.

Raymer doffs his hat to a time when Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the common ground for communities from across the world, their histories shared and surviving still in the city’s architecture, cuisine, street lingo and epitaphs. He indulges in the spirit of education of a city that, more than any other Indian city, has been home and workplace to five Nobel laureates and world-renowned film-makers and artists. He admires the city’s deep-rooted cosmopolitanism, which finds Muslim students in Jewish schools, local Christians in Greek churches, Muslims participating in Hindu festivals; the lack of major communal arson over many decades; the city’s capacity to make space for millions of East Pakistan refugees and migrants from the impoverished Hindi heartland states; and the apparent castelessness of Calcutta society.

He accepts the city, warts and all, not glossing over its decay since its halcyon days as the city of palaces or the second city of the empire. Calcutta, variously, has also been the object of Mark Twain’s disdain, Rudyard Kipling’s The City of Dreadful Night, V.S. Naipaul’s “an abomination", Günter Grass’ “city damned to offer lodgings to every human misery" and a “dying city" for the late Rajiv Gandhi.

Anybody who has seen Malle’s documentary film Calcutta, first screened in 1969, would also know how the Western gaze can skim over everything else if the mind is set on highlighting nothing but the lowly streets. For perspective, turn the camera around and contemplate a portrait of New York dominated by scenes from its drugs, mugger and sadomasochism quarters.

Multiplicity: The Howrah Bridge. Photo: Courtesy ‘Redeeming Calcutta’ by Steve Raymer/Oxford University Press.
Multiplicity: The Howrah Bridge. Photo: Courtesy ‘Redeeming Calcutta’ by Steve Raymer/Oxford University Press.

While the introduction lays the pitch for an effort at redemption, the photographs often betray the plan. For all his nuanced understanding of perceived notions, Raymer devotes around nine frames to the hand-drawn rickshaws or portraits of its pullers as an emphatic continuation of a Calcutta visual cliché.

Some of the captions seem stretched, erroneous and irrelevant. A photograph of an elderly lady sitting on a rickshaw is explained as the lady being vulnerable to the toxic brew of vehicle exhausts, with the additional information that Calcutta is the air pollution capital of India, even though a 2011 World Health Organization survey found Ludhiana, Kanpur, Delhi, Lucknow and Indore to be more polluted. Yet another caption mentions that the most frequent users of the rickshaw are “just a notch above the truly poor"—a lazy assertion ripped from a 2008 National Geographic article by Calvin Trillin.

Working in colour, on the lines of the late Raghubir Singh’s (wrongly spelt as Raghubar in the bibliography) photographs of Calcutta, Raymer captures some remarkable vignettes of the city—a beautiful shot of calligraphy work at a Buddhist temple established by Chinese-origin residents (though the caption mentions 30,000 existing residents of Chinese origin, the real figure should be around a tenth of that), two fascinating street scenes using the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as a backdrop, tender moments captured at the Missionaries of Charity, a prostitute’s wait on Sudder Street, and the striking contrast of the high-rise South City apartment buildings towering over the urban sprawl. His portraiture too is top drawer. Raymer, making good use of texture, form and colour, works largely within the frame of social documentary and news photography.

But Redeeming Calcutta offers little that is new or unknown about a much-photographed city. By returning to the tried-and-tested north and central Kolkata photography zones (both Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial Hall get multiple displays), Raymer has allowed himself to be caught in the same visual vortex that kowtows to the Western understanding of the city. While he does attempt to strike a balance by visiting some of the areas where Kolkata is expanding, unlike many of his predecessors with the camera, the overpowering impression, even if only partially true, is of a city reeling under the force of its colonial crumble and wistful lament. He merely scratches the other surfaces of the city.

Life by the Hooghly. Photo: Courtesy ‘Redeeming Calcutta’ by Steve Raymer/Oxford University Press.

In this city, young women are sometimes known to change from their conservative dresses to miniskirts before entering nightclubs, where deejays work the crowd well past midnight. Musicians here support families playing Bangla heavy metal and defiant film-makers are pushing the limits of art through sexuality.

Here too are children who don’t really get to experience the weather or the street, living in air-conditioned, sheltered spaces—from schools to bedrooms. But it seems these aren’t the images that can occupy a photographer’s construct of the city.

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