An impressive photographic exhibition, In the City, a Library, is to be showcased at the third edition of the FOCUS Photography Festival in Mumbai from 9-23 March. In the project, Sahitya Akademi winner Jerry Pinto and photographer Chirodeep Chaudhury collaboratively explore the relationship between bibliophilia and decay.

On display will be a number of interesting photographs documenting the fate of a Mumbai library called the People’s Free Reading Room and Library, established in 1845. A book perfectly chewed by termites to such an extent that it forms an interesting design, a book holding a letter addressed by a child to his father seemingly long forgotten, an old BEST ticket probably serving as a bookmark and the like, all promise to make this festival a visual delight for bibliophiles, photographers and art connoisseurs.

Chaudhury thinks that this image project is born of the collective love for books as professed by both, Pinto and himself. “The project began with photographic memories and though initially we really didn’t have any fixed idea where we were going, it took a little time to solidify this in our heads, after Pinto who is also the trustee of the library opened the doors for me,” adds Chaudhury.

Pinto retorts, “When Chirodeep began to shoot, neither of us had a project in mind, neither of us knew what this would lead to. We only knew that we were looking at that peculiar fragile fetish object, the book, and we were considering the intimations of immortality that a library can offer. These are, I think, on display in the photographs.”

The exhibition truly brings into focus the story of books apart from their text/visuals. For Chaudhury and Pinto, who have made their lives around books, it was natural to gravitate towards this subject.

“When Chirodeep began to shoot, neither of us had a project in mind, neither of us knew what this would lead to. We only knew that we were looking at that peculiar fragile fetish object, the book, and we were considering the intimations of immortality that a library can offer.”
Including over 2,000 books, this project took a lengthy 15 months to accomplish. Narrating the background to this ingenious attempt, Chaudhury says, “The People’s Free Reading Room and Library at Dhobi Talao, bang across the Big Metro Cinemas, has a plethora of books on history, geography, fictional works, engineering, contemporary works, etc. My peculiar interest was towards the older collection. People forget and inscribe a lot of things in books such as tram tickets, bus tickets, letters, book marks, old stamps of the Bombay Presidency, scribbles, doodles and weird messages. One such book remained unopened for so long that the impression of an artwork came to be cast on the sheet adjacent to it.” He further elaborates, “For me the photographic challenge was how you tell the story of the library through not a conventional way: library as a gorgeous space, people reading, which is a bit of a cliché.”
The Natural History of Man. By James Cowles Prichard and Untitled. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhury

Talking about the collaboration, Pinto says, “Collaborations don’t start at a particular moment, at least not in my experience. I find my collaborators among my friends. I am often told that this is a bad idea and leads to the end of a friendship but I’ve never found that to be the case. Perhaps this collaboration can then be said to have begun 17 years ago when Chirodeep and I worked together at Traveljini.com (a travel website). Perhaps it began when I was asked to join the board of trustees of the People’s Free Reading Room & Library. Or did it begin when I asked Chiro to come and see the library I had fallen in love with, and he came and said, ‘Can I shoot?’ and I said, ‘Sure’. I don’t know. But for a photographer like Chiro, work begins in the alembic of the imagination; where the possible photograph is born out of what presents itself.”

Chaudhury’s was a dauntingly uphill task. He recollects, “Days were spent only at looking and pulling out books, flipping through books. A large amount of time spent rummaging through books, suffocating dust, and heat. There were text-based and illustrated books, eaten away dramatically by insects.”

 Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhury

For Chaudhury, the challenge was to show the fragility of memory. “How to photograph memory was the question I was repetitively asking myself. “Consider a book written some 200 year ago and nobody is reading it anymore then there is certain kind of memory that is fading in various ways: forgetting the author and eaten away by rats. He further adds, “One can say that a book really becomes a tangible way of exploring the flashback and library turns to a museum where book is an artifact representing the memory.”

In the City, a Library, is just an initiation, for there are plans in the pipeline, long-term plans. As Pinto says, “Yes, there is the Shelf of Limitless Desire, a video project. There is an audio exercise in library memories. There are lots of plans, constrained by time, and money.”