City and the shutterbug

City and the shutterbug

Photography

City and the shutterbug

Celebrating life: From Kejriwal’s ‘Babu at tea cabin’.

Ever since French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first-ever photograph in 1825, the human race has been fascinated with the art of photography. Mankind quickly recognised the value of the snapsnot in recording times, and serving as tributes to people, moments, and movements. Almost two centuries later, professional photography has come a long, long way thanks to advancements in technology and a constant thirst for innovation.

Add to that a generous dose of easily-available Microsoft Photoshop and other photo-editing software, and you have a recipe for success — a situation where photography is a household name, and photography exhibitions are a dime a dozen.

In particular, city or street photography seems to be the pursuit of choice. The grand old city of Kolkata, referred to by many as the “cultural capital” of the country, seems to be a photographer’s delight, with its picturesque old buildings, its hawkers and street-side wares, and friendly Kolkatans always obliging for a photograph. No wonder, then, that the art-loving public is flocking to various displays of representations of their own city.
The Birla Academy of Art and Culture played venue to Leena Kejriwal’s exhibition ‘East City, Kolkata: Before the Campaign’. The month-long exhibition, in the form of an art installation, is a collection of photographs of Kolkata, as seen through the eyes of Kejriwal. Armed with her camera, she captures the bustling energy, the unstoppable old-time charm and intelligence, grandiose historical monuments as well as trivial objects, that when put together build up an impression of a city that, though largely traditional, nevertheless pulsates with a modern touch.

Kejriwal says, “In Kolkata, the continuing traditions and behaviours of our ancestors are juxtaposed with progress and modernity. The city bears witness to the inter-weaving of religions and languages, and as the former capital of British India, carries the last vestiges of colonialism. Through my photographs, I have sought to capture this unique world that is Kolkata.”

Classical and kitsch
A cursory look through the photographs gives the viewer the impression of an old-world aesthetic that exists alongside an increasingly modern charm. Kejriwal has captured both the mundane and the sordid with uniform ease — the classical and the kitsch find equal pride of place in her exhibition. One is struck by the negative-colouring of the photographs, and Leena is quick to say, “I find that expressions and personalities tend to come through much better in negative.”

‘East City, Kolkata: Before the Campaign’ is a record of Kolkata’s people, habits, and lifestyle. The man sitting with his hands together in a watch-shop, a view of rickshaw-pullers along a street lined with book shops (possibly College Street), and a part of the Chitpur neighbourhood — each represents Kolkata in its own unique way. The Babus and Bibis (men and women) of the city, too, find place in her exhibition. The photograph of the quintessential Bengali bhadrolok, clad in pyjama-dhoti and carrying a black umbrella, walking his dog alongside a hoarding of Bipasha Basu, stands out not just for its pop-art-like quality. Rather, it is the most appropriate visual representation of two mindsets — the old and the new, that co-exist peacefully within the boundaries of the city.

National Geographic, in a recent issue, focused on the streets of Kolkata. In particular, it drew attention to the rickshaw, a symbol of India’s past. The image of the rickshaw and its puller crops up again and again in the collection — a man pulling a rickshaw alongside a taxi, both sharing space on the busy road; a rickshaw-wallah washing his clothes in his humble abode, the wheels of his vehicle clearly visible, and a rickshaw-stand. It is evident, therefore, that Kolkata street photography captures not just moments, people and their expressions but also symbols that have become synonymous with the city, and blended in with its personality.

On the subject of street photography, one is also reminded of Dayanita Singh, and her exhibition ‘Ladies of Calcutta’. Credit goes to this internationally-acclaimed photojournalist for moving beyond the stereotypical ‘exotic’ images of the streets, providing instead a realistic look at faces and what they reveal. Singh, with her focus on portraits, transforms the real to the reel.

Street gaze
Yes, professional street photography in Kolkata is certainly thriving. Today, with a gallery on every second street of the city, professional photographers are spoilt for choice when it comes to venues to exhibit their work. Add to that the obvious easy availability of subjects to capture, and a public that is waking up to the aesthetic quality of photography and you have a scenario where photography exhibitions in the city see a large foot-fall.

Amateur photography is not to be left behind, however. Armed with DSLR cameras and an eager eye to capture their subjects of fancy, the non-professionals are roaming the streets and alleys of Kolkata. Meet Devjyot Ghoshal, a 23-year-old journalist who spends the occasional odd Sunday capturing snippets of his city with a Nikon D3000. An avid street-photography aficionado, he says, “Situational portraits are usually my subject of choice,” and a brief look at his Flickr photo-stream shows up a little girl smiling up the camera, a football game in progress at a local park, and a fruit-seller caught enjoying the paan in his mouth. Ghoshal’s photographs are impressive not only because of the spontaneity of the expressions captured, but also because he moves beyond the stereotypical to more unique scenes of interest.

Shreya Sarkar, a final-year student of English at Jadavpur University, prefers to capture the still life and spaces of the city, with the technique of bokeh. She says, “I love to use macro photography where the subject is focused on, and the rest is blurred out.” Her Flickr collection, too, is impressive, the photograph of the earthen pot of milky tea capturing special attention. Sarkar is a regular face at photography exhibitions in the city, and constantly tries to expand her knowledge on the subject by issuing photography books from the library.

Definitely, the amateurs are not to be left behind. Carrying forward the passion for capturing the streets, people and moments of Kolkata, they are slowly, but steadily, gaining a stronghold on recording the life and times of the city.

“A good snapshot stops a moment from running away,” American author Eudora Welty had once said, succinctly summarizing the very function of a photograph. Indeed, we love our photographs for recording faces and expressions, for bearing testimony to past events, and for capturing within space and time a single moment that we would like to remember. And it is heartening to see that both professional and amateur photography are doing their part, in Kolkata, to stop a moment from running away.

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