Photography in Bengal: A Reflection

As a child, the only photographers I was familiar with and was taught to admire were Krishnapada Sengupta and Subrata Ghosh. While Sengupta, fondly known to our family as Kanai-da is largely responsible for the yellowed prints resting in our family album from my father’s childhood days, Ghosh has frozen some of the most precious memories of my younger times. With the passage of decades, albums have changed; the black-and-white photographs from Kanai-da and Subrata have migrated to newer and better dwellings: from albums wrapped in velvet to albums with floral prints to leather-wrapped albums bought from a shopping mall recently. In the last few years, they’ve even made their way to my hard-drive where they rest digitally in a folder titled, ‘Memories’.

My knowledge of photography as a youngster was confined to a few individuals I knew personally until the world of pictures invaded me in the later teens of my life. By the time I was seventeen, Don McCullin would be occupying the larger fraction of my mind; Subrata’s 1987 copy of THE GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS series dedicated to McCullin’s work would become the most precious thing I could ever have. Subrata fueled my interest in photography from day one and shielded me carefully from what is known as Salon Photography, one of those things vestigial that Calcutta continues to live with, even after more than six decades since her independence from British rule. In present-day Calcutta, some documentary photographers, photojournalists and fans of Araki, Ackerman and Arbus meet together in  filled-up drawing rooms, discussing about the revival of Calcutta’s photography scene and ways to influence the young blood to shun the salon. That however is one herculean task. Calcutta’s interest in salon dates back beyond the days of Prodyut Coomar Tagore and Sukumar Ray, the first Indians to be Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.

Sukumar’s son, world-renowned filmmaker Satyajit Ray describes in his memoir, Childhood Days about his life in Garpar and his days spent with his distant-grandfather Kuladaranjan Ray. Ray talks about Kuladaranjan’s passion for hand-coloring, printing and enlargement and about how Kuladaranjan used to be recalled whenever someone he knew died and was left upon with the task of enlarging the face of the deceased from a group photograph, so that family members could pay homage. However, the passion for printing and photography was nothing new in the Ray family, with Upendrokishore Ray (1863-1915) being a pioneer in the art of engraving and was the first to attempt color printing in India. Satyajit Ray, in spite of being a filmmaker was also a keen photographer. He had captured some rare moments in the history of Bengali photography, my favorite being the photograph of superstar Uttam Kumar nervously riding an escalator for the first time in his life, in Rome.

However, Satyajit Ray is best remembered in the Bengali photography scene because of the contribution of his photo-biographers Amanul Haq and Nemai Ghosh. While Amanul Haq followed Ray to the sets in Debi, Nayak, Tin-Kanya, Mahanagar and numerous other films, Nemai Ghosh would shadow Ray for most of his later endeavors. These two talented photographers have left for posterity, a visual documentation of one of Asia’s most noteworthy film-makers and a thriving film-industry now in distress, recovering from the Ghatak-Ray-Sen hangover in post-Communist Bengal.

Nemai Ghosh’s photography is in some ways indebted to a person largely forgotten today with the advent of digital photography in West Bengal. Bikash Bose, the lone darkroom technician in Calcutta with four decades of experience behind him, still operates from his home-turned-darkroom in a South Calcutta address. Once in a while, some of the purists will rush to his home with a few rolls of Kodak Tri-X or Fuji Neopan. The people visiting him are usually long-known clients from here and abroad. Occasionally, new faces arrive with their first rolls of film and thus start another youngster’s journey into black-and-white photography. When Bikash Bose shuts shop in the not-too-distant future, a largely forgotten chapter of photography in Bengal will close forever.

But, is the history of photography in West Bengal only about photographers based in the subcontinent? The context changes drastically when we look into the Raj when Bengal was a cosmopolitan city and people from diverse backgrounds stopped by.  A cache of 178 glass-plate negatives bearing images from a 1910s India with all the action happening in the city of joy was discovered in a shoebox by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in Edinburgh very recently. These photographs throw light on a different Calcutta: of colonialists and the colonized, of social life during the time and the architectural splendor of the era.

However, one of the most important collections of photographs documenting the life in Bengal was the 1945 album by the American GI, Clyde Waddell. I find two photographs from the album particularly interesting: one, of a group of native prostitutes in floral frocks soliciting a GI. The other one in old Chinatown, of a Chinese addict in an opium den. Both have tremendous archival value. Though, the word ‘archive’ will bring back memories and nostalgia from a Chowringhee address not very familiar with the youngsters today. On February 6, 1991, Bourne and Shepherd’s Calcutta studio went up in flames, destroying in its wake, more than 2000 glass-plate negatives bearing the rich photographic history of three present-day nations, if not more. The loss is irreplaceable and has created a hollow in the Indian subcontinent’s colonial history.

As the photography scene in Bengal strides towards a renaissance in the making, cynics are predicting a bleak future. ‘What are we going to do with all these pseudo-Ackerman-s and Pellegrin-s?’ a critic asks when the subject about the emergence of a new gang of young photographers is raised. This makes me wonder about photography being one of the most difficult forms of art because of its simplicity, where developing one’s own style and finding one’s own voice are of utmost importance. Have the new generation of photographers from West Bengal found their own voice, their own identity?

Only time will tell.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Sunil Janah, without whom the photographic history of Bengal would have been quite different.

Note: This article has been written as an assignment for a course dedicated to the history of photography. All photographs used on this blog belong to their respective owners and have been used just for non-commercial purposes.