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Monochrome Images

Satyabrata Pal

By Steve Raymer
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 208, Rs. 3650.00


Steve Raymer, a National Geographic photographer for many years who now teaches journalism at an American university, made six trips to India to, as he writes, ‘follow my dream to do a book about Calcutta.’ That immediately wakes the reader up, because ‘dream’ and ‘Calcutta’ are rarely found in the same sentence: nightmare, incubus, succubus, yes, but not dream. This is not, however, a dreamy book, or your average coffee-table book on India, packed to its shiny gills with snapshots of temples, palaces and wildlife, of spectacular mountains, rivers and beaches, dreamscapes of exotic grandeur. Those books nest in every fashionable living-room in India, gazing up at the Hussain and the chandelier, like immigration stamps on a passport, proof that the owner has arrived. In the salons of Indian diplomatic residences, they are props in the marketing of India. I doubt, though, that the Ministry of External Affairs will be rushing to place bulk orders for Raymer’s book, because it is more coffee grounds than coffee-table—dark and gritty, the future told in the dregs of what has been drained.   But it is dark and gritty in silken colour. In his long introduction, Raymer is implicitly critical of the ‘increasing number of Western photographers [who] have travelled to Calcutta to render it in gritty black-and-white images, despite the important role colour plays in the everyday life of Indians.’ Monochrome images, though, mask the horror of Calcutta’s squalor. Nothing is hidden in Raymer’s images, nothing is left to the imagination, and there is no artifice for the reader to admire and hide behind. Garbage and grime, rust and stains, which would be veiled shadows in black and white, are naked, vivid, full frontal in these photographs. Raymer recalls that Kipling damned Calcutta as the city of dreadful night, but it is also, as every amateur photographer knows, a city of dreadful light. If he had wished to, Raymer could have made his pictures lurid, but he has not. They assault the senses, but they are not sensational.   In 1971, long before Dominique Lapierre skewered it as the city of joy, Calcutta was the city of joi bangla, the name its residents gave to the conjunctivitis that started in the camps for the refugees from Bangladesh and turned into an epidemic. By the autumn, every other person was walking around with eyes that were red and watery. It was a ...

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