A city held by time

Print edition : February 22, 2013

Man asleep in front of graffiti, c.1978.

Chinese man and girl, c.1978.

Overview of Tangra, c.1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Satyajit Ray with his book, c.1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Old man and girl at the door, c.1978.

The man with the shooting range, c.1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Workers in a leather washing unit, c.1978.

Grandmother series, c.1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Horse buggy, c.1978 Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Mosque in a slum, c.1978 Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/

Pablo Bartholomew’s photographs in the recent exhibition in New Delhi, The Calcutta Diaries, create an imagination of a city living its history and its present simultaneously.

IN the mid-1970s, when the legendary film-maker Satyajit Ray was making Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players), a film based on a short story by ‘Munshi’ Premchand, to show the world the self-indulgent ways of the Lucknow aristocracy during the first war of independence in 1857, a young photographer, Pablo Bartholomew, who handled the stills of the film, undertook a similar endeavour in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Just as Ray’s film highlighted the indifference the Lucknow aristocracy had for its immediate surroundings, Bartholomew captured a Calcutta that was a far cry from the imagination of the Bengali bhadralok—a Calcutta populated and defined by its many “outsiders”.

Calcutta has been a muse to many artists, but their works are mostly tied to the city’s elite imagination—that of its classical culture or its institutional art forms in music and painting and lifestyles. Bartholomew breaks this mould and comes out of it to capture the everyday life of the immigrants of the city, the street-dwellers and the daily-wage workers. In the process, he turns the city’s imagination, characterised by chastity and purity, upside down.

While Ray delved into the past to offer a critique of the aristocratic culture, Bartholomew showcased the contemporary, making the viewers question aristocratic imaginations, replete with colonial and zamindari hangovers. In strange ways, Calcutta, a city which Bartholomew loves and from where Ray worked, became the common ground to tell this tale.

In a recent exhibition held in New Delhi’s Art Heritage, Bartholomew exhibited the pictures of Calcutta that were taken in the 1970s.

The political landscape of Calcutta was changing in the 1970s. Following the growing influence of the communists in the aftermath of the Naxalbari uprising in 1967, artistic gazes, too, began shifting from chaste and clean to “impure and common” spaces. The lives of the poor began to be documented with greater detail to show that the world was not what it was imagined to be. At the same time, the cityscape was also changing. Industries were coming up; bureaucratic empires were being built; cities started becoming the hub for employment; and commercial activities began giving the city a shape that had to be retained for the future. It was in this context that Bartholomew, born to a Burmese father and a Bengali-Punjabi mother, was drawn to photographing subcultures without intending to make any direct political statements and, yet, offering an alternative view.

The exhibition, the fourth in the series on cities, the previous ones being “Outside In”, “A tale of three cities”, and “Bombay, Chronicles of a past life”, was aptly titled “The Calcutta Diaries”. It was divided into four distinct sections of black-and-white photographs: images of Bartholomew’s grandmother, a social commentary on the Chinese community, street life of Calcutta, and his engagements with Satyajit Ray. Together, these photographs present an intuitive and personal view of a Calcutta that was still struggling to find its own identity, caught as it was between its colonial past and newer political and economic formations.

Bartholomew’s city upbringing shows in the intimate approach he employs while shooting city spaces. His attachment to the city is evident in almost every image. Strangely enough, Bartholomew’s Calcutta does not evoke much nostalgia for a person who has lived in the city in the 1970s. But, the photographs have a personal, intimate touch that any person viewing them would long for; mainly because of the way the city space has been captured through the lens. The Calcutta that has been pictured is less about the geographical space and more about the emotions of the people living in it, a quality that does not depend much on the period.

Bartholomew believes that Calcutta’s cityscape is not about its commercial hubs or posh localities but about marginal spaces that are often ignored by its elite population and authorities. The detailing in the photographs shows how integral these spaces are to the lives of the people inhabiting them. It is primarily because of this correlation between the space and the people that Bartholomew’s pictures are lively and intimate, providing an insider’s point of view.

Like Bartholomew’s other recent photo exhibitions, the Calcutta show, too, captures the everyday life of a city with an underlying social commentary. At the same time, these photographs are also representations of spaces where the photographer has spent a considerable part of his life. It is for this reason that the exhibition was titled “The Calcutta Diaries”. Diaries are about personal experiences and yet they are archived for an invisible audience. The blurring between the private and the public in these photographic diaries connects the viewer and the photographs in a way a disconnected photographer would never be able to achieve.

Bartholomew has always been drawn towards the subcultures of the city. “Urban streets have always fascinated me. Beyond the politics of such spaces, the multifaceted layering of a city space tells a lot about a how a city is. I was always interested in the visual appeal of such spaces.” It only seems natural that he has so beautifully crafted the images of a worker sleeping in front of political graffiti or an acrobat completely immersed in refining his skill. A stand-alone photograph of a weathered-down man standing with his portable shooting range—his employment—renders to a common man a character that is defined by strength and perseverance.

The aerial shots of a Calcutta lit by tungsten bulbs and halogens serve as the only nostalgic departure from the neon-lit streets of today. Similarly, a picture that shows medieval horse-and-ox carriages and hand-pulled rickshaws, so typical of Calcutta, competing with buses and trams for space in a street brings out a city caught in transition. Together, the photographs create an imagination of a city living its history and its present simultaneously. The lives of the people, the chaos in the city, the inequalities, and the effervescent idleness of Calcutta are brought to life.

It is said that one can document a city only if he/she loves and understands its chaos. Bartholomew’s love for Calcutta comes out in the way he captures its chaos. The chaos does not come across as a mess or an aberration; it feels as if it is integral to the city’s organic nature. The people engaging with the city space are its crowd, and not necessarily an unruly one.

In Bartholomew’s photographs, the frames are composed in such a way that a method in the madness of the crowded streets reveals itself gradually and distinctly. An organic system is generated and the city becomes a living subject. Bartholomew’s lens makes the city real, and alive. His vision leads him directly to those streets where people continuously grapple with their own identities. Immigrants, street-dwellers and the homeless eventually become the most integral part of his vision. The photographs that capture the lives of the Chinese community in the Tangra region evoke varied feelings. They portray at once the immigrants’ anxieties in a new space and their survival skills. The confluence of two different cultures is what interests Bartholomew. “I am interested in how two different cultures merge together. I am drawn towards continuities more than change. I, too, am from a mixed culture and the subject has always interested me,” he says.

The photograph that shows Chinese children enjoying their Bengali snack in the evening time is a great telling of migrant cultures. Similar are the photographs that show the different traditions that the Chinese community retains even years after migration. Bartholomew says the tradition is also retained through age-old conflicts. “There are two groups in the Chinese community in Calcutta—one which is aligned to Taiwan and the other to mainland China. They are staying in one ghetto in Calcutta (an outside space) but they still have starkly conflicting views. Even conflicts become part of the tradition,” Bartholomew says. He recalls how the Chinese in Calcutta were ostracised after the 1962 war with China. “They were completely marginalised. It was hard for them to stay in Calcutta. Many migrated to different places in search of a secure living. This community drew me and I kept going to Tangra to photograph them at various times. Since most of them worked in leather tanneries, I ended up taking many photographs around the tanneries,” he says.

Migrant cultures, their anxieties, their unity in diversity, and the layering of such subcultures come out in the photographs in great detail. Bartholomew’s photographs gain multiple perspectives every time you see them.

The photographer says subcultures of a city have always been a subject of fascination for him. “My generation came at a very interesting cross section of history when Western travellers, for the first time, came to India overland—in buses, vans, or by hitch-hiking. With them came music and drugs. So, in a sense, for my generation it was a kind of cross-cultural pollination. This drew me into documenting the lives of this subculture as well as my own place in it. Freshly thrown out of high school, and ostracised and marginalised by Delhi’s social circles, I felt like an outsider and was drawn to documenting the underprivileged and marginal groups. I organised my first exhibition at Art Heritage in 1979, which dealt with these themes and the issues of the eunuch community, the red-light areas, the opium dens and the people on the streets,” Bartholomew says in an interview to photographer and art curator Rahab Allana.

“I have always been drawn to the marginal—and that is what the work on the Chinese Indians of Calcutta that I did in the 1970s is all about. Even today, I am looking at the Indian emigrees in different parts of the world as marginal economic refugees. The looking continues, whether they be the Indians from the French islands in France or the Ugandan Indians in Leicester. The outsider is not just a sexy concept, it is what one feels and who one is,” he adds.

The Calcutta show is only one of the many journeys Bartholomew has undertaken. Like most of his photographic journeys, this show, too, is both a vision of an outsider looking in and that of an insider trying to live his own experiences. Calcutta represents an important, unexplored family link which Bartholomew started to discover in the 1970s and abruptly abandoned in the 1980s. But he plans to look into the city further.

He says in an interview: “I have photographed what was around me and still do. Journeys were made then and they continue even now. So, I have always recorded what was around me and intrigued me. The engagement was very simple—to look, to see, and to capture; to fill some voids that were created in the past and remain even now. In some ways it has been a form of therapy and sometimes a shield. And in our family, we lived our lives and recorded them, and if now some of it has become ‘history’ then so be it. We all make up our own language as we go along. The archive is a reservoir of this language, and it needs to undergo a constant process of re-engagement and reassessment, in the same way that language changes and evolves over time. This is what archives are for me. They are the guardians of our memories. Calcutta is still a city that is held by time. I felt it more when I went to visit my grandmother as a child, and it still held that resonance when I went on to the sets of Shatranj Ke Khiladi . So, when I was photographing it, it was not about nostalgia as it may seem like now. Perhaps, with the passage of some more time it may become history. It is all about transitions and time—story becomes myth, myth becomes legend.”

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