Portraits from the Metropolis
Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:November 15, 2017 12:26 am
Exhibits from Amit Chaudhuri’s exhibition.
After his 2013 book Calcutta: Two Years in the City, and returning to the metropolis innumerable times in his writings, author Amit Chaudhuri presents yet another forgotten facet of the city with his foray into art. He has photographed original owners of sweet shops across Kolkata for his exhibition ‘The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta’ at Asia House in London. At the opening early this month, Chaudhuri also sang and played the guitar.
When did you conceptualise this project?
I began to consider a few artistic possibilities some years ago. Embarking on ‘The Sweet Shop Owners of Calcutta’, I was drawn to the unknown and invisible, in the sense, to what we see every day, but don’t necessarily look at.
Tell us about its execution.
I asked a photographer, Saheli Das, who lives in Malda and Calcutta, and whose pictures of obscure everyday scenes I like, to accompany me to sweet shops in north and south Calcutta. Saheli took her DSLR camera with her. Not every shop has these portraits any more, but, over two hot days in April, we visited about 15 or more places. I was disappointed not to find one in Nakur, which is a venerable sweet shop in the north. While Saheli took photographs, I took backup pictures on my iPhone. These are the ones I eventually used, because I’d taken them in colour, and they ended up inadvertently recording the extraordinary tones of the originals.
In the concept note you mention, “The portrait of the sweet shop owner has, for me, the same aura that a picture of a novelist like Bankimchandra Chatterjee might have on the frontispiece of a book in Bengali.” Could you elaborate?
It’s an aura that’s very difficult to pin down. I grew up in Bombay, but would encounter it on trips to Calcutta, in books my cousins possessed about the ‘great men’ of the Bengal Renaissance — Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Vidyasagar, and Raja Ram Mohan Roy — whose portraits embodied a variety of moods that became identifiable both with their personalities and the new historical age they lived in. In our childhood, the pictures represented a kind of secular magic. But you also saw portraits on some walls that occupied the border of the secular and the sacred, like Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s picture — a man who was a ‘saint’, but who’d been thrown into modernity. I suppose that the sweet shop is a comparable space.
You have said that Calcutta gave you your first taste of modernity. How do you position the city in modern India?
I like the fact that you use the phrase, ‘taste of modernity’, because, in a way, that’s what the sweet shops entail. You taste something there that’s recognisable and whose ingredients you can’t really put a finger on. You taste not only sweets, but the atmosphere of decay in which they’re often manufactured and displayed. The sweets were a kind of avant-garde experiment in 18th and 19th-century Bengal; chhana itself was introduced to the culture by the Portuguese. I am not interested in anthropology. I’m interested in the continual generation and metamorphosis of life that Bengali modernity represented in the last two centuries; that’s what moves and sometimes surprises me.
Will the exhibition travel to India?
I would very much like it to be shown in India. It was shown in London first because an Englishman I have worked with pressed me to complete the work, and Asia House was open to the idea.
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Via:: Health – Indian Express