Like Varanasi, Kolkata is one of the most photogenic cities in India, famous for its exotic charm. From masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson wielding sophisticated devices to tourists armed with smart-phone cameras, generations of photographers have been susceptible to the noble gloom and the aura of grandeur associated with the old British capital. Kolkata’s unique spirit is usually represented by images of rickety hand-drawn rickshaws and derelict tramcars (of late, the latter have got a swanky new look, though not necessarily a fresh lease of life), stately but crumbling mansions, walls thickly painted over with amusing graffiti, and other (mostly endearing) clichés like the Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial Hall.

The interest in Kolkata’s iconographic appeal persists in the work of several contemporary photographers. A few years ago Raghu Rai did a popular promotional campaign for Aircel, the cellular phone service provider, in which he used photographs of the immersion of the goddess at the end of the Durga Puja. Dayanita Singh’s 2008 exhibition of portraits, Ladies of Calcutta, held at Bose Pacia Gallery (which was closed down after the devastating fire at Stephen Court in 2010) in the city featured some of Kolkata’s most prominent residents. A few of those images were included in her book Privacy. But perhaps the most faithful and persistent chronicler of Kolkata is Nemai Ghosh, who, in his 80th year, continues to add to his burgeoning archive of photographs spanning several decades.

Last year a major exhibition at the Delhi Art Gallery brought together a body of his work based on Ghosh’s long association with filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Recently HarperCollins India came out with a volume of Ghosh’s photographs that pay tribute to the city where he has lived all his life.

Nemai Ghosh’s ‘Kolkata’: Collins, 204 pages, 1999
Nemai Ghosh’s ‘Kolkata’: Collins, 204 pages, 1999

For the next couple of decades, Ghosh shadowed Ray at work, taking hundreds of photographs of not only him but also the illustrious cast of actors who appeared in his films. Over the years, he would go on to shoot other directors and actors from the industry and in other parts of the country. But, while Ghosh’s reputation primarily rests on his film photography, there are scores of other photographs he took of the city he belongs to that attest to the versatility of his repertoire. Nemai Ghosh’s Kolkata—with an intimate, if rambling, essay by journalist Sankarlal Bhattacharjee and a trite and, once again, rambling foreword by actor Amitabh Bachchan—allows us a sense of the range of images Ghosh made.

Ghosh seems to have documented the well-known mementos of the city with unexceptional skill most of the time, though there are instances when he succeeded in adding a touch of the strange to the familiar. In one of his more striking cityscapes, we see political graffiti on the wall of a building depicting a row of corpses lying in a pool of blood. The scene refers to the infamous incident in 1982 when 16 monks and a nun belonging to the Ananda Marga, a religious sect, were killed in broad daylight in Kasba, on the southern fringes of the city. In Ghosh’s composition, the tragedy assumes a doubly surreal edge—first, for being reconstructed in the form of an amateurish painting, and more strikingly perhaps, for being juxtaposed against a man bathing under a roadside tap in real life. Yet, in spite of the clever framing, the photograph is devoid of any self-conscious gimmickry; its historical resonances are preserved, without being burdened with an artificial gravitas.

While Ghosh had a clinical eye for detail, he did not shy away from bringing a certain emotional intensity to bear upon his subjects. If he allows us a panoramic view of the austere high-rise apartments, sprouting like gigantic monuments to capitalism in the middle of a city that was ruled by communists for decades, he also trains his camera on to the faces of the wretched of the earth, capturing moving vignettes from their lives: we see people waking up on Kolkata streets at dawn, destitute men and women staring out emptily, and babies weeping.

The same eye, we discover, can be playful as well. Like Cartier-Bresson’s portraits of French intellectuals—of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, most famously—immortalized on the covers of the Penguin Classics editions of their works, Ghosh also made evocative portraits of some of the luminaries of Bengali literature. Novelist Samaresh Basu is seen engrossed in writing, while his younger colleague Sunil Gangopadhyay poses more self-assuredly for the camera. There are other moments in which Ghosh’s pleasure in recording the cultural heritage of the city is evident. Be it in a performance by legendary blues and jazz singer Pam Craine from the 1960s, a cabaret night from the same era, or a solo concert by alternative pop singer Kabir Suman decades later, this photographer’s eye embraces a vast sweep of time and faces.

Nemai Ghosh’s Kolkata: Collins, 204 pages, 1,999

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