“To much of the world, Calcutta remains a clichéd black hole — a city where humanitarians like Mother Teresa, the Nobel Laureate, and thousands more like her have toiled on behalf of the poor, a righteous story made picture-perfect for journalists.” It is this Calcutta Steve Raymer sets out to explore and, in the process, he discovers that there is much more to the city. In his new book, Redeeming Calcutta: A Portrait of India’s Imperial Capital, published by Oxford University Press, Raymer captures a city of high culture, leftist politics, and ambitions to reclaim its past grandeur. In Raymer’s compelling photographs, the metropolis rises above its stereotyped image.
Steve Raymer, now a Professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, was a staff photographer for National Geographic for 24 years, reporting on topics such as global hunger, the illegal trade in endangered animals, the humanitarian work of the International Red Cross in war zones around the world and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has been named Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association and honoured by the Overseas Press. His new book is the result of a five-year project in Kolkata. During these five years, Raymer travelled to Kolkata six times, researching and photographing the city. The result of his passion and hard work is displayed in this 210-page book, full of images and text that paint a colourful, complex and nuanced image of this15-million-strong city.
In his book, Raymer says that Kolkata, as it is now called, is easily dismissed having become a “city of such economic and social chaos that it has become a byword for unspeakable poverty”. Raymer tries to provide a more inclusive view of the city, several steps ahead of the stereotypical images conjuring a Slumdog Millionaire kind of squalor, filth and hopelessness. He photographs Kolkata’s architecture, capturing everything from majestic mansions to high rise office buildings and “mud, burlap and cardboard” shacks. Raymer’s aim remains to capture the myriad facets of the city, providing a well-rounded, complete picture; one that sheds light on not just the city’s horrors but also its greatness and magnitude. Raymer finds that the city carries within it “an infectious joie de vivre for high culture, political debate and, increasingly, making money”.
In the introduction, Raymer elaborates on the history of the city, illustrating the text with sepia images from The British Library, The Library of Congress and The Commonwealth Museum. The book goes on to show us a city that has produced five Nobel prize winners; a city with more than 200 theatre groups, the largest annual book fair in the country and a history so rich and palpable that the traces of it still linger in the air.
The book is packed with over 200 images, with accompanying text and captions, which provide a montage of a great city.
Bottomline: A montage of a great city.
Redeeming Calcutta; Steve Raimer, Oxford University Press, Rs.3650