Histories in visual records
Few modern cities have bred so many myths as Calcutta…popular beliefs and images that acquire the status of basic truths and guide our interpretations of reality. The chief Calcutta myths are depressing ones, relating to poverty, over-population and urban blight. Almost as compelling, however, are the equivocal myth of political awareness and political turmoil, and the reassuring myth of Calcutta's cultural pre-eminence, her intense intellectual and artistic life.' - Sukanta Chaudhuri, 'Calcutta, The Living City'.
Not all myths, however, require dispelling. Often, some, or all of them, contribute towards imparting to a city, to a culture, to a people, its unique flavour(s), perhaps even at the risk of getting frozen into archetypes. More important than trying to demystify that stamp, I believe therefore, is to try and deconstruct the very trajectory of that process. And since visual records, much more than literary ones, bear testimony to the formation and perpetuation of such characters and characteristics, it is fascinating, to say the least, to map histories as manifest through its visual representations. When it comes to Calcutta, the baffling enormity of its visual array paintings, prints, maps, posters, advertisements, and photographs, among a rich host of many others prove to be indispensible tools in unravelling the mystique, as it were, of the 'living city'.
The Visual Archives at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (CSSSC), named the Hitesranjan Sanyal Memorial Collection, after the historian who was faculty at the CSSSC from 1973 to 1988, began functioning from 1993, with the objective of preserving Bengali literary documents of the Calcutta of 19th and 20th centuries. 1996 onwards, it launched its mission to build up a visual archive, pertaining specifically to the city - its history and culture - as could be collated and preserved from individual and institutional collections. Over the years, the archive has worked indefatigably towards conserving the changing face of the city through its visuals and the changes in modes of their production. And this by no means, is an easy feat, considering the sheer range of categories that the city has had to offer over its three-century plus existence. Just like with all other archives that work with more or less clearly-defined ontological agendas, the vastness of resources for the CSSSC archive however, automatically poses the question of what are to be included, and what left out. In this case, 'the scope has been necessarily defined and restricted by the collections that it could search out and gain access to, and the kinds of materials that were amassed in them' says Tapati Guha-Thakurta, professor of History at the CSSSC and curator of 'The City in the Archive: Calcutta's Visual Histories' that ran a full house at the Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre, Calcutta, from 8th to 25th of July, 2011. 'The spread of this documented material is neither even nor exhaustive', she clarifies, going on to stress that the strength of the archive therefore rests chiefly 'in a bringing together of an eclectic mix of pictorial, graphic and photographic imagery from an assortment of private and institutional holdings in the city.'
While the very task of delineating for an archive its precise reach of operation is arduous in itself, what is even more challenging is to organize and compartmentalize it into slots when an exhibition for mass viewership is conceived. What makes it even more daunting is to have to keep in mind, that such an exhibition then throws the archive's collections open to a wide range of perception that will view it not necessarily from the eyes of a scholar, connoisseur or a collector, but from the perspective of a layman, for whom, it is the spirit of nostalgia that is most likely to be evoked. Keeping all such possible ramifications in mind, for the purpose of this exhibition, the entire collection was slotted into four major sections: (i) Print Productions and Graphic Design; (ii) Portraits and Personalities; (iii) Leisure, Consumption and Entertainment; and (iv) Urban Sites and Spaces.
The first section dealt with the beginning and development of printing technology in Calcutta, 'the exemplary symbol of modernity in the city and the most significant bearer of its ethos of urbanity and culture.' From covers to illustrations for periodicals, almanacs, calendars, pamphlets, advertisements and children's' books, it covered the wide sweep of popular production, touching upon, through its representational display, not just the evolution of the modes of printing methods (woodcuts to oleographs and chromolithographs), but also, on pioneers such as Preo Gopal Das, Khaled Chaudhuri, Upendrakishore Ray Chaudhuri, Annada Munshi, O C Gangoly, Ranen Ayan Datta, Raghunath Goswami and Satyajit Ray, who were responsible for elevating industrial/commercial 'design' to the level of 'art'. Their own creative brilliance aside, equally responsible for this inclusion into the realm of high art is the undeniable role that individual collectors like R P Gupta and Parimal Ray have played through the care and passion with which they have appreciated and painstakingly conserved these art-forms.
The second section focuses on the different forms that portraiture took in the city through the 19th and 20th centuries; dwelling on the changes in forms, styles, subjects, poses and techniques of production, from the days of colonial Calcutta through the nationalist period to its post-independence avatars. Not only was this illuminating for traversing such widely divergent worlds, it offered insights into the lives of some of these early photographers who stood out at a time when easy accessibility to digital photography hadn't yet turned Everyman into a chronicler! Men such as Parimal Goswami, Kamakshiprasad Chattopadhyay, Ahmed Ali certainly, but also women like Annapurna Datta and Debaleena Majumdar.
As the city underwent politico-economic changes, corresponding ripples were inevitably felt in its socio-cultural life. Notions of leisure, ideas of entertainment, consumption tastes and practices went through interesting transformations that visual productions like tourism-posters, record-jackets, movie-posters, theatre-handouts, dance-pamphlets captured brilliantly. It was nothing short of enthralling, thus, to witness the unfolding – image after fascinating image – of a concept as abstract, as difficult as this, even as one felt transported back to chronotopes that one wasn't necessarily a living part of! 'No writing can give me this certainty'; and I couldn't have agreed with Barthes more!
While the final section could have relapsed into a somewhat dull projection of the city's topographical development through cartographical displays alone, it is spruced up through a positing – sometimes in tandem, sometimes as alternative – alongside its photographic mappings. This last section photographs by lensmen of the post-independence period like Ahmed Ali, Ranajit Sinha, Dilip Banerjee or the press photographs of dailies like Jugantar – shows how and why Calcutta has leant itself to visual clichés, that even the likes of Raghu Rai find hard to reinvent, to reconfigure. The documentation of Calcutta's street life, political life-inextricably linked to its larger cultural identity-daily life, comprising modes of occupation, leisure, transportation or strife has created such a rich corpus, its popularity is evident most glaringly in how these issues, these subjects and the city at large continue to be the Mecca for photographers both indigenous and foreign who wish to capture the 'essence' of Lear's 'Husslefussabad'.
'Perhaps we have an invincible resistance in believing in the past, in History, except in the form of myth', Barthes had noted and had continued by saying that it is the photograph, and not the cinema which had put an end to such resistance, its tactility lending to it the credibility of certainty. One can well say that in case of not just the photograph, but of all other visual memorabilia that one encounters at this absolutely stunning exhibition, that shows exactly why Calcutta's 'myths' continue to flourish; why steeped in its past, it is the living city! Though it would be unrealistic to hope to see the entire collection at such an exhibition, what it does, through its representational glimpses, is to whet the appetite for more, much more, possibly also igniting desires for serious scholarly work that this veritable treasure trove temptingly invites one to. Though plenty of literary work has been done on Calcutta, to see its metamorphosis through such inventively ingenuous visual categories was a treat one that is waiting to be taken beyond the city; for its sure to strike a chord outside the immediacy of its geo-cultural limits.
This article has been first published in Art and Deal, a Delhi-based art magazine.
PAROMA MAITI is a writer and researcher on art and worked as Editorial Assistant with the Kolkata based art magazine, ARTETC. Currently working on a project of archiving Company Paintings by the National Culture Fund, Ministry of Culture, India at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta, she writes regularly for art journals within and outside India. She has recently joined Depart as Executive Editor.