I love Kolkata because people here are ‘deewane’,” said legendary photographer Raghu Rai. “Where else in the world can you have a huge hall packed with lovers of photography on a rainy evening except in this City of Joy,” he added.
Raghu Rai was the chief guest at the inauguration of the Kolkata International Photography Festival on February 27 at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, also called the ‘Mahakumbh of Photography’. The festival was showcased in 10 art galleries across many halls and floors all across the city.
Said painter Jogen Chowdhury, “It’s high time that the visual narratives of the camera should be included as another form of fine art.” Raghu Rai agreed with him, even as he was so happy to receive as a gift one of the oldest Nikon camera with a metal shutter from Babul Ganguly, who has inherited one of the oldest photo studios of the city, dating back to the late 19th century – the Bombay Photo Studio – earlier in Park Circus, and now located on Ho Chi Minh Sarani. “Conceptual photography with planned, predictable and beautiful images is not photography. Selfies are repetitive narcissism,” said Raghu Rai. “Photography is like receiving a divine gift, a sudden, meaningful instinct and message, from nature. It is at that precise moment that the image is registered in your mind. That moment is a revelation. It is truly a magical and divine gift, the spontaneous documentation of reality.”
Kolkata celebrated this mega event with pulsating enthusiasm. There were 250 photographers from across the world, including the finest from India, the eminent names mixing with the amateurs and the eclectic. The main retrospective was that of Raghu Rai showcasing 60 years of his incredible images from India’s kaleidoscopic spectrum, including rare images of Mother Teresa and Dalai Lama, juxtaposed with Kashmiri women mourning the dead, a crow sitting on an empty charpoy amid a barren western UP landscape, and the tragic, collective catharsis when Durga is immersed in the water during ‘visarjan’.
There is also an unknown Gaurab Guha who has showcased the living ‘Kali’ in Bengal – men and women dressed as the goddess in rural fairs and festivals
There are rare pictures, gifted by filmmaker Sandip Ray, clicked by his father Satyajit Ray, including a picture of Ray by Sandip where he is painting a statue. There are also lovely pictures of Ray with Mrinal Sen and Uday Shankar in black and white, in that famous room where Ray worked, facing a huge window with a tree, clicked by great photographer Nemai Ghosh, who documented Ray’s life and films as a ‘still photographer’. There were other greats too - Shyamal Dutta, who has traversed the remote and tough terrains of Northeast India for 15 years to document a visual anthropology of invisible indigenous communities. Prabir Purkayastha has lived in the abject solitude of the frozen expanse of Ladakh for 26 years to document the magnificent landscape like magical abstract paintings. “It is a kind of madness,” he says. “It is also liberation.”
There are news photographers who have clicked women in blue burqas in Taliban’s Afghanistan – one woman blowing a bubble gum with her lips. There are children playing on tanks, clicked by Idris Ahmed in Israel. Great news photographer S Paul’s magical street life stands in contrast to Jyoti Bhatt’s epical narratives of rural India. There is also an unknown Gaurab Guha who has showcased the living ‘Kali’ in Bengal – men and women dressed as the goddess in rural fairs and festivals. “There is no sociology behind my camera. I just wanted to capture Kali as a living reality in all its local forms,” he says.
Actor Soumitra Chatterjee summed it up in a message: “Of all addictions, photography is one of the most dangerous. My life and career have been intertwined with photography. My director Satyajit Ray was a master of it. I am, therefore, very proud that my city is hosting such a large festival. This is sheer history in the making.”