Saturday, June 10, 2023

A lensman’s commemoration of Kolkata


By Tulu Chatterjee

Kolkata: Many tomes have been penned on Kolkata in celebration of this city’s culture, traditions, festivals, arts and people.

One more will join their ranks soon, but this promises to be a lot different. Nemai Ghosh’s ‘Kolkata’ is a fascinating collection of some very rare photographs of this city and the many personalities who’ve shaped it. Ghosh has a very refreshing take on Kolkata.

“What draws me to Kolkata is its human element and its spontaneous expression. Every moment of this city distils a narrative of epic possibilities and I, as a flaneur, have framed all of that,” Ghosh writes in his book.

This book will take one back to the Calcutta of the turbulent 1970s, but Ghosh steers away from the gore that visited the city then.

Instead, there are wide angle shots of the United Front’s first rally at Maidan, an elderly woman blessing Ajoy Mukherjee and a smiling Jyoti Basu at this rally and of political graffiti of those times.

There are black and white photos of Kolkata’s landscape, or rather its cityscape, of buildings and architecture, North Kolkata’s narrow serpentine lanes and its landmarks.

What makes the book a rare visual treat is the way the photos have been curated-one of breakfast at Flury’s is placed next to street side food vendors.

Another of Jyoti Basu eating with a fork finds space beside one of (then) Governor Professor Nurul Hasan using his fingers to eat and of street children eating from an aluminum pot. There are rare ones of Mrinal Sen, Ranjit Mullick, Ritwik Ghatak, MS Sathyu, Sandip Ray and Jaya Bhaduri, among others.

And of Pam Craine at Blue Fox and Bengali cabaret dancer Shefali at Firpo’s Lido Room in the Calcutta of the swinging sixties.

This book commemorates Calcutta like a few others. If it depicts poverty, it does so with a lot of sensitivity; for instance, the spirit of this city is beautifully captured by the satisfied smile of a poor lady seeing her kids eat some food she had bought for them.

There are candid shots of this city’s celebrated faces – Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Mother Teresa, Sankha Ghosh, Chapal Bhaduri, Uday Shankar, Samaresh Basu and Sunil Gangopadhyay.

And Ghosh himself is one such face, not least for the many books in coffee table format that he has brought out. His first, ‘Satyajit Ray at 70’ with a foreword by Cartier-Bresson, was published in 1991.

He has brought out two more on Ray, one on Paresh Maity and a few more on painters and theatre groups. His next book, to be released in January, is on the blind painter Binod Behari Mukhopadhyay.

But it is the book that follows this one that Ghosh is most excited about. It all started with his first book on Ray in 1991, for which the legendary Michelangelo Antonioni wrote a small piece on Ray.

But Antonioni never got a copy of the book, which subsequently went out of print. In 1994, Antonioni came to Calcutta to attend the film festival and Ghosh presented him with copies.

Antonioni called him over to the hotel he was staying in, and Ghosh clicked many black and white snaps of the film director and his wife Enrica.

He sent those photos to Antonioni, who liked them so much that he offered Ghosh the job of a photographer for a film he was planning to shoot in India.

That film never happened, and in 2006, an invitation from Antonioni to attend an exhibition of his paintings at Rome reached Ghosh, who went and took many photos of Antonioni working on a painting.

This sequence of photos will be published in another unique book Nemai Ghosh is planning, ‘Masters of Cinema: Beyond the Glare’, on Antonioni and Ray.

Ghosh has one regret, though. He was keen on taking photographs of Victoria Memorial for a book he was planning on the monument, but was refused permission to take any photos inside the museum.

So he has shifted attention to Amritsar, where he will take black and white photographs of the Golden Temple for a book on that in March next.

Amitabh Bachchan says in his foreword on Ghosh’s book on Kolkata: “A photograph that speaks despite it being ‘still’ is art.

A photograph may be a ‘still’ in its finite form, but when it moves despite being motionless, it may well be called ‘Nemai Ghosh'”.

Kolkata’s loss of another work of art by Ghosh will be Amritsar’s gain.

That’s doubly unfortunate because Ghosh plans to hang up his boots when he becomes an octogenarian in May as soon as he finishes working on that book.

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