City of cliches

Last Updated: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 19:34 hrs

Steve Raymer, an acclaimed photographer, made six trips to Kolkata between 2009 and 2012 for this book of images of the city. His objective, as he declares early on, was to document the “legendary city” that has “become the byword for unspeakable poverty”. Only his project wasn’t as disinterested as the word “document” implies. Raymer had grander ambitions, as the title reveals, of “redeeming” Calcutta’s reputation, of showing that there was far more to the city than the ubiquitous poverty. It’s an impulse guaranteed to get an indulgent reception from every true-blue Calcuttan — and I am one, despite, or perhaps because of, having left the city many years ago. So why am I not taken with Raymer’s book?

Mainly because all the images here seem unoriginal. You have seen flashes of them in Raghubir Singh’s Calcutta (1988), the first big-format picture book depicting the teeming life of the city, and Raghu Rai’s book published a year later. Singh and Rai are pioneers and artists who, in these books and their later work on Calcutta (and Bombay and India, in general), pretty much set the frame of the picture, both in terms of subject matter and the way they were photographed. Much of what they captured 20 years ago — hand-pulled rickshaw-wallahs as human beasts of burden; the texture of mildew on crumbling buildings, once-grand structures; idols in various states of making in Kumartuli, the potters’ colony; aerial shots of the chaotic traffic; the immersion of the Durga idol in the Hooghly; bathers on the ghats; the Missionaries of Charity nuns and their flock of the ill and dying, and so on — are today stock images of Kolkata. The point is not that this is not the reality of Kolkata, but that in the hands of all but the most sensitive of artists it can become the pornography of poverty and squalor.

The problem with projects like Raymer’s is the irritating generalisations they make, the pat phrases they use such as “City of Joy” or “A City of Hope and Decay” (Raymer’s title for his introduction), that get more ironic with each iteration. Often, it is Westerners, especially those from first-world countries, who are guilty of this, although even Indians from elsewhere find it hard to look beyond. This is usually the result of ignorance, on the one hand, and on the other, all the ideas that they’ve picked up from the many books that, while focusing on the poverty and the bad things, give a patina of fuzzy romanticism, laced with raj nostalgia, to their description of Kolkata.

Raymer, for instance, appears to have no more than a surface acquaintance with the city and its people. Worse, often his captions are at odds with the images. Here’re a few instances: a rather nice image of a middle-aged woman sitting pensively on a stationary rickshaw is described as, “vulnerable to a toxic brew of vehicle exhausts, a woman rests...” and so on — nowhere do you see even a wisp of smoke. Describing the chaos near Sealdah Railway Station, Raymer talks about the many migrants who come “every day”. This is a little excessive — the hustle-bustle in that area comes from farmers who travel to the city from the hinterland to sell their produce; they will go back in the evening.

Raymer clearly intends his book to be a kind of introduction for lay, Western readers, those thinking of visiting the city, the reason why he includes a chunk of text that gives a potted history of the city’s birth, its growth, the socioeconomics, culture, eminent citizens, past and present, etc. His intended readers will be better served if they looked elsewhere.

Author: Steve Raymer
Publisher: Oxford
Pages: 208
Price: Rs 3,650

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