At the beginning of Camera Lucida, Barthes writes about death as the eidos, not – at this point – of the Photograph, but specifically of the photograph of oneself: “Ultimately, what I am seeking in the photograph taken of me… is Death: Death is the eidos of that Photograph”. Later on, death as eidos seems to apply to all photography as he notes that “however ‘lifelike’ we strive to make it (and this frenzy to be lifelike can only be our mythic denial of an apprehension of death), Photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead”. While probing through the images on display at Pablo Bartholomew’s latest exhibition titled ‘The Calcutta Diaries’, one could not agree more with Barthes.
The exhibition is culled from Bartholomew’s own archive, entailing the years he spent in Calcutta during the mid 70s, on a commission to shoot stills for Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and a few subsequent productions. Curiously titled ‘Diaries’, the images simultaneously constitute and dispel the notion of the personal; after all a diary is an extremely personal documenting enterprise. But Bartholomew’s offers an aside – “A diary is also a set of notations you see; notes copiously taken or sometimes ostensibly jotted”.
The exhibition consists four distinct sets of images, the distinction marked by a discernible commonality. The first set of images is perhaps the ‘most’ personal which capture Bartholomew’s aging grandmother at her Short Street residence. The second are of the immigrant Chinese community of Calcutta, who have dwelled the city and been naturalised since the late 18th century. The third set of photographs entail encounters with Ray and his work. The fourth kind can be best described as what Bartholomew wanted to take back from Calcutta.
Bartholomew has expressed his affinity towards working with individuals and elements from the fringes, the ‘outsiders’. Hence the desire to capture the immigrant Chinese community in frame can be understood.
Bartholomew has expressed his affinity towards working with individuals and elements from the fringes, the ‘outsiders’. Hence the desire to capture the immigrant Chinese community in frame can be understood. On being questioned on why the Chinese, because Calcutta is possibly one of largest conglomerate of migrant labourers and individuals since colonial times, Bartholomew said – “It immensely interested me that when suddenly, following the Indo-Sinian War, these Chinese people who had made the city their home for more than a century were ‘othered’, and tagged as ‘enemies’. What you see in my photographs are these same enemies of the people.”
Bartholomew emphasises that individuals always interest him more than locales and spaces. Hence the geographic locale of Calcutta binds these photographs only in theme; the spotlight is on the city’s hoi polloi. Even in the images involving Ray, Bartholomew says that “the idea was to explore more the workplaces he inhabited; also his house was the only place where I could catch a glimpse of a Calcutta middle class residence”.
Coming back to what was said at the outset, one felt that the photographs were at end of the day, ultimately about death. Calcutta is a decaying city for decades now, many spaces which we encounter in these images might not exist or have metamorphosed heavily; some are still unchanged. The Chinese, the photographer’s grandmother, Ray himself, and the street hawker with a balloon target board and an air gun are somehow locked in a time capsule, a chronological warp. The argument has a closing, almost validating frame from the display, a man asleep on the footpath against a backdrop of political walling (something which has become almost nonexistent in the city) – reminding one “Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest”.
Venue: Art Heritage gallery
Date: Until 23 January