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City of surprises

books Updated: Mar 04, 2013 12:48 IST
Shital Verma
Shital Verma
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Redeeming Calcutta; A Portrait of India's Imperial Capital
By Steve Raymer
Oxford University Press
Rs. 3650 pp 208

A picture is worth a 1000 words they say and Steve Raymer's photographs in Redeeming Calcutta, that display the moods of the City of Joy, is worth many thousands.

In his introduction engagingly illustrated with sepia-tone photos, Raymer, who teaches visual journalism at Indiana University, USA, writes effusively about the city, sharing its history and tracing the rise of communism, which attracted the poor who were eager to collect rations of rice and oil. He also points to its current challenges and looks at its giddy ambitions.

Raymer has travelled to Kolkata six times in the past five years to research and photograph it, and his book displays a complex, contradictory and colourful city full of surprises.

In his pictures, an endless sea of pedestrians, taxis, and buses choke the great boulevards; in the historic city centre, the air is deep blue with diesel exhaust; motorbikes dodge herds of goats, stray dogs, and deformed beggars seeking alms; rickshaws pulled by half-naked men navigate the neighbourhoods flooded by the monsoon; billboards cover façades of mansions, and splendid public buildings and decaying jetties testify to the city's legacy as a great trading port and a seat of government.

Some of the scenes that Raymer has chosen to photograph are familiar from the images shot by generations of photographers who have, likewise, portrayed the city with affection. Among these are pictures of the Howrah bridge, the ghats, Durga idols, Raj Bhawan, St. John's Church, and, of course, the Victoria Memorial with lovers on its grounds.

Then, there are the images that give you a glimpse of life in the city: Hindu worshippers purifying themselves in the Hooghly, porters hefting oversized bundles of textiles onto each others' heads, a cricket match, a French nun belonging to the order of the Sisters of Charity chatting with worshippers, a snaggle-toothed widow begging on the street, demonstrators protesting the cost of electricity, workers in a factory that makes jute sacks…

Raymer's photographs are compelling. Coupled with detailed captions, these pictures portray the juxtaposition of incongruous ideals and the mélange of sights, sounds, aromas and diverse cultures that are unique to India's most frantic city.

(Shital Verma is a design professional and a photographer.)