Spotlight Art

The city in the image

The urban history of Calcutta and its inhabitants springs to life from these rich archives

A women clad in a blue and white traditional Bengali saree is seated in front of a spinning wheel, sipping tea. The text declares that ‘Tea is 100% Swadeshi’.

It is a poster that the Indian Tea Market Association Society published in the early 20th century to promote tea drinking among the masses.

Another advertisement dates back to the 1940s, and is of prominent city confectioner Naba Krishna Guin (9B Wellington Street, Calcutta) and it claims that it prepares ‘Sweets for the Gods’. An even older commercial from 1910 for Patell’s Tooth Powder proclaims it to be ‘The Ideal Dentifrice.’

Thousands of such popular print advertisements, anonymous signboards, photographs, matchbox covers, illustrated books and journals, and commercial art cover designs, which show the changing face and visual history of Calcutta and its surrounding regions during the 19th and 20th century, were for a long time lying with private collectors and different institutions. It was in the 1990s that a government institute began to collect and preserve these archival materials.

The visual archive, started by Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), in 1996, had the mandate to document, catalogue and collate all such pictorial, print and photographic imagery. Today, 15,000 such images, of immense historical and cultural importance, have been digitised by the CSSSC. Other than these, 20,000 microfilms of different periodicals and newspapers of the middle 19th and 20th century have also been preserved.

A poster of tea that is ‘100% Swadeshi’

A poster of tea that is ‘100% Swadeshi’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Guhathakurta director of CSSSC, recently curated an exhibition that was an eclectic mix of pictorial, graphic and photographic imagery, titled The City in the Archive: Calcutta Visual Histories. The CSSSC collection not only has a large number of photographs, it also has such minutiae as the minutes of meetings of the Calcutta Improvement Trust. These digitised records include photographs and details about ‘Connecting the Howrah Bridge’, ‘Widening of Dalhousie Square’, and ‘The Laying of Central Avenue’, among other crucial urban developments of the city.

The exhibition, among other things, is invaluable in illustrating the different ways in which one can visualise the nature of the modern city—its public spaces and lifestyles, the changing forms of middle-class sociability, leisure and consumption.

Under the category of print production and graphic design, there are early Bengali illustrated books and periodicals, children’s book covers and illustrations. Through these visual documents, certain important characters and their contributions to shaping popular culture also come to the fore. For instance, poster artist, illustrator and cover designer Khaled Choudhury, who went on to make the covers for approximately 15,000 books in Bengali, Hindi, Assamese and English, features prominently here.

Notable among the individual collections is the Radha Prasad Gupta Collection, which has a fascinating variety of 19th century popular pictures including Kalighat paintings and mythological picture-prints.

A rare collection of matchbox labels from Parimal Ray’s assortment also throws interesting light on the times. By the 1920s, the market in Kolkata was dominated by a Swedish match company that set itself up in India as WIMCO. The foreign company used Indian images, nationalist icons, and cameos from Raja Ravi Varma’s mythological paintings.

The city in the image

Institutions like the Indian Institute of Art in Industry came up in 1947 and, with the patronage of corporate houses such as Dunlop and Burmah Shell, an annual award for best industrial design of the year was created. Advertisements for Bata and Tata Steel, published in a journal called Art in Industry, reflects the psyche of both customers and manufacturers then. The collections include designs made by legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray at advertising agency D. J. Keymer where he worked as a visualiser.

Then there is the vast assemblage of photographs and portraits of individuals, couples and families, the chief resource of early Indian photography. From personalities in the classrooms of the Government School of Art to Calcutta Art Studio prints to the collection of Siddhartha Ghosh. One of the largest selection of photographs from the 40s to the 60s is from Ahmed Ali, who began his professional career with Bourne and Shepherd and went on establish his own firm called UNICA in 1940.

Not only are these bits of history a fascinating subject for collectors and modern historians, they also preserve the unique characteristics of an older era. Companies that thrived, products that were in vogue once, the culture and entertainment of those days, they are all evoked. One interesting example is the advertisement for Flower Perfume for the Handkerchief, a product of the Swadeshi Perfume Company. The notion of leisure of the middle-class in Calcutta, their taste for new products, the culture of eating out, the city’s sites for touring—all these jump out at the viewer from this visual archive.

It becomes obvious, for instance, that the Bengali’s zest for travel goes back a long way. The Eastern Bengal Railway ads of 1930 depict a family, an elderly couple and a small child, hurrying to catch a train to go on a vacation during the Puja holidays. Even the age of the couple and the child is a valuable sociological pointer here.

While the printed word, in the form of periodicals, journals and newspapers, remains an important source of history, visual archives such as these open up entirely new avenues to explore the country’s social and cultural history.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 8:17:00 PM |

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