Calcutta was — and, as Kolkata, remains — a creature whose prime purpose is to be recorded. In his exhibition, ‘The Calcutta Diaries’, Pablo Bartholomew brings us a city which is actually various Calcuttas of the 1970s.
One section deals with friends and family, the interiors of homes inhabited by faces and figures that in turn, off-camera, populate the city.
A photograph of a young woman smiling and standing in front of a government ‘Ganja & Opium shop’, visible in Calcutta right up to the early 90s, mixes documentary with portraiture aesthetics. We also find photographs from the sets of Satyajit Ray’s Satranj ki Khilari, where employed as the crew’s still photographer, Bartholomew creates a ‘movie behind the movie’ series.
Photos of Ray himself have a certain kind of familiarity, which we may have come to possess thanks to the many more familiar ones taken by Nemai Ghosh of the director at work and at play. But there are a few wonderful ‘candid camera’ shots of Amjad Khan on the set, especially one taken from slightly above his head showing the actor putting on a jewellery piece on his wig and getting ready to become Wajid Ali Shah. Bartholomew magically captures him in the ‘Amjad-Wajid’ transition stage.
Calcutta shows itself to Bartholomew without any inhibitions. An old colonial building with a dented signpost (‘Dental Goods Supply Co.) and in utter disrepair has become a shape — not of things to come such as collapse and ruination, but simply that: a deceptively solid shape. Much like the city itself.
Intense irony radiates out of the photo of a labourer sleeping on the street with a graffiti-frieze showcasing some kind of class-struggle underway on the wall behind him. The revolution, in this image, is frozen by camera and sleep.
A large section of ‘The Calcutta Diaries’ also documents the Chinese community of Tangra and Tiretta Bazar. Bartholomew’s interest here is of a community (co-)existing within larger notions of community. This becomes an animated twilight zone that straddles between what we know as ‘Calcutta’ and what we know as ‘not-Calcutta’ — in this case, a Chinese Calcutta.
‘The Calcutta Diaries’ is as much a record of a city as it existed some 35 years ago — some pictures actually underlining how little things have changed —as much it is about what a camera loves to capture when given a willing, sprawling, exhibitionist as a subject.
‘The Calcutta Diaries’ by Pablo Bartholomew is on at Art Heritage, Triveni Kala Sangam till January 23 (Sunday closed)