Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday Heritage Walks

A bunch of us, struck with the realization that we had never visited the more obscure Calcutta landmarks such as the Armenian Church and the Oriental Seminary, have decided to devote our Sundays to the noble aim of exploring the city on foot. We call it the Sunday Heritage Walks Series, because these things sound cooler when you give them a name, and because we are not very good at coming up with imaginative monikers.

Today was Chapter One of the series. Masquerading as tourists in our own city, we roamed its streets from dawn to dusk, and en route, we discovered some amusing pieces of trivia – Calcutta’s Tea Auction Centre is the second oldest in the world after London, St. Andrew’s Kirk has a weekly service in Nepali, the Jews in Calcutta only just outnumber the synagogues.

Rather than boring you with a detailed account of my day, I’ll confine myself to a few photographs and an anecdote. First, the pictures.

And now we’ll talk about photography. What makes a good photographer? Photography handbooks talk about vision, sense of composition, eye for detail, so on and so forth. But they rarely mention one very important quality, a quality that is especially important if you are shooting people. They rarely talk about audacity.

It was audacity that got Yousuf Karsh his famous photograph of Churchill; legend has it that on impulse, he snatched the cigar from the great man’s mouth seconds before releasing the shutter. (Read Karsh’s version of the incident here). And closer home, I’ve seen my friend Bunty at work.

Consider my case, now. I like photographing people, but I am always slightly uncomfortable about blatant invasions of personal space. Bunty on the other hand has no compunctions about waving his camera in the faces of complete strangers – from sunbathing girls on Goa beaches to wretched pavement-dwellers in the more squalid parts of Calcutta – a habit which no doubt annoys said strangers in no uncertain measure, but which also earns him some good photographs.

Among Bunty’s victims today were several members of the dwindling Chinese population of Calcutta. But first, a brief description of the setting. The Sea Ip Chinese Church on Chhatawala Lane (Bengali: Umbrella-makers’ Lane) is a 104-year old red building with curling eaves and a peaked roof. Crammed with intricate sculptures and religious paraphernalia, it nestles improbably among matchbox office blocks; one of those secret treasures that big cities reserve only for the most devoted tourists.

So we are at this church, and I am taking photos on the ground floor. Meanwhile, Bunty decides to check out the first floor, and walks into a full-blown wedding ceremony. The bride and the groom are making their way to the ground floor, followed by a sizeable entourage, when Bunty realizes that his memory card had run out of space. And I walk up the stairs to find him holding up the wedding procession, animatedly explaining his predicament and requesting them to wait while he freed up space.

Happily, the guests were more bemused than anything else, Bunty got his pictures, and I got my anecdote.

10 comments:

Priyanka said...

OK the photo is just brilliant, it looks like it could go into a NatGeo special. No kidding.

arzkiya said...

Err, in re Bunts, can't believe you missed out on that "Dara, Dara, Dara, Delete Korchhi" bit.

Abhiroop said...

Hehehe... Cant believe Im missing out the action....

Who else was in the gang? Just you, Bunts and Hotpants?

Rahul Saha said...

Bunty once made me sit in the middle of a highway to take a "natural" photo.

Shrabasti Banerjee said...

Fun! Maybe I'll join you sometime. :)

Anushka said...

People who don't have audacity generally have to rely on anecdotes. But anecdoting this well is an art :)

the soliloquist said...

The Sunday Heritage Walks sound great.And the picture is absolutely stunning.

P.s. It's interesting that you mention the ethics of photography because I happened to read Susan Sontag's essays on the subject for a Modernism course this year; they are brilliantly disturbing.

Sroyon said...

@Priyanka: This photo was by me, though. Didn't have access to Bunty's photos at the time of posting. But thanks. :)

@arzkiya: You should have written a post with your perspective of the thing.

@Abhiroop: Priyanka was there too, for a while.

@Saha: I have the photo. It's a good photo, though not in any sense a natural one.

@Shrabasti: Oh, but you must!

@Anushka: I'd rather take good photos than write good anecdotes. :-/

@Soliloquist: *goes off too google Susan Sontag*

Gaurav DG said...

Hey Sroyon, Count me in.... Are you going somewhere tomorrow? Gaurav

John Galt said...

http://www.karsh.org/#/the_work/portraits/winston_churchill/

A description by the man himself - in continuation to Sroyon's writing.....