Passing Bite | Society

The priest and the maverick

Filmi Father: Gaston Roberge in St. Xavier's College, Kolkata, in 2006.

Filmi Father: Gaston Roberge in St. Xavier's College, Kolkata, in 2006.   | Photo Credit: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Calcutta’s Chitrabani set off ideas and projects that influenced the study of mass media in India long before the discipline became fashionable

As a 17-year-old in Calcutta, just out of school, I had a stroke of great luck. I was waiting outside the best camera-repair workshop in the city for my father’s Nikon to be fixed when I fell into conversation with a girl, a little older than me, who was also waiting for her camera. We began discussing photography. After a while she asked me: “Have you heard of Chitrabani?” I hadn’t. She handed me a flyer about this institute that was offering courses in ‘Media Communication’. I repeated that I was just out of school and probably not qualified to be accepted. “Don’t worry. It’s quite an informal thing. Just go and see.”

I asked the girl if she had joined and she said she hadn’t, what with college and a fledgling modelling and film career, but she wished she could.

A few days later I made my way to the church compound on Wellesley Road where this Chitrabani was located. Asking about the course, I was directed to a small, dark room on the ground floor. I reached through the curtain and knocked on the door. A deep voice asked me to come in. Going in, all I could see was the silhouette of a thin, older man with thick specs, a bright window behind him.

Radio ga ga

He growled, asking me what I wanted. I told him. He asked me to sit down and I did. “Tell me, what are the major mass media of this country?” I answered, “Films, television…” and then I ran out of things. His growl went up a gear. “Radio!?! Radio is not a major mass media of this country?” I was told to go away and come back with a few short notes on films and plays I had seen, and how they had affected me. I came back with the notes and was admitted into the course, which was a bit like Alice falling through a magic portal into another world.

The man, who was the director of the course, was one of Calcutta’s great intellectual mavericks, Deepak Majumdar. He had recently been hired by Gaston Roberge, aka Father Roberge of the Jesuits, another maverick of sorts, who was the founder and head honcho of Chitrabani. Roberge had come from Quebec to Calcutta in 1961, and then convinced the extremely conservative Jesuit chain of command to send him to UCLA to do a course in film studies.

Upon returning, Roberge began writing on Indian cinema; on everything from Satyajit Ray to Sholay. There are many who would attribute the beginning of Cinema Studies in the subcontinent to the Canadian, but Roberge had wider ambitions. In Chitrabani he set up an institution that contained among other things a state-of-the-art sound recording studio, a working radio station for the Jesuits, a photography laboratory, the best library on media in the country, a regular film screening programme, and the Media Studies course under Majumdar.

Strange combination

Other media study centres came up across the country soon, but Chitrabani preceded all of them, working in partnership with FTII in Pune and NID in Ahmedabad. At its peak, CB, as we called it, set off all sorts of ideas and projects that influenced the study and understanding of mass media in India long before the discipline became fashionable and, in so many places, watered down into the superficial ‘media courses’ we see currently.

Today, it is difficult to describe the strange combination of informality and rigour that characterised CB. If Roberge’s famously French-accented Bangla communicated his liberal patrician’s vision and his metronomic, de rigeur priestly sternness, Majumdar’s was the pioneering irascible craziness that led students and staff into different risky but fruitful adventures. Through them and through others who associated with them, we learnt all sorts of important lessons: not to look ‘down’ with the camera at a poor or destitute person, not to regard traditional performance and crafts as ‘primitive’, not to use the marginal and the downtrodden as image-fodder for your own aggrandisement, to try and understand and value non-verbal communication that operated very far away from the overt and covert canons of Western thought.

That being Calcutta of the late 70s and early 80s, people would often ask me if Chitrabani wasn’t a Trojan Horse designed to insert Catholic Christianity in through the back door. Others, tending towards Stalinist-Maoist hackery, would add the lazy charge of the place being a CIA operation. To the first I would reply that this was the place which, with its work on the Bauls, allowed me a proper entry into Bengali Vaishnavism; and to the second bunch I would say this was the place that houses one of the best anti-capitalist photo archives of India.

Ruchir Joshi is a filmmaker and columnist

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 11:33:57 PM |

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