Calcutta Diaries and notes on the Chinese Indians
It was during the time when I went to work with the filmmaker Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players), first in 1976 and then on subsequent productions that I got to know some of the actors and crew intimately. Working as a Stills photographer on the sets, I spent a lot of time in Calcutta at the film studios around Tollygunje.
Beyond the studios the re-engagement with the city of Calcutta, its streets and spaces were of a very different kind from what I remembered in my childhood when I accompanied my mother on her summer holiday visits to see my ageing grandmother.
It was stifling on the studio sets - film shootings had that effect on me. On the other hand it was therapeutic to get away and wander the streets, to feed the inner churning. It was a way of dealing with my own sense of being of mixed origin and of being marginal.
It was this feeling that drove me to explore the Tangra and Dhapa areas of South Calcutta, photographing amongst the Chinese community - or whatever fragments of them that remained. Brutally mistreated, especially after the hate that developed against them as the ‘enemy’ following the national humiliation of India’s defeat to China in 1962, their exodus from the subcontinent had already begun. Many of them were subsequently interned to prison camps in Deoli in Rajasthan.
The Chinese army marched into upper Assam all the way to Tezpur in the Northeastern part of India. So for the political and military blunders that our country made, the Chinese Indian populations suffered, particularly in Calcutta - a community that had lived here for generations, coming at first as migrants from mainland China in search of a better life ever since the late 18th century.
And many of those whom I had photographed in the previous year had subsequently left for Australia, Canada and the U.K., leaving India to find a new life of equal opportunities, better economic prosperity and thereby giving them a new lease of life. They managed to break out of those stereotypical roles of past generations that lived and worked as shoemakers, laundrymen, small dentists and low-end restaurant owners.
My engagement with the Haka Chinese community in the Tangra area, this group who lived, owned and ran leather tanneries - and in a diminished way still does - was my first endeavour to document a community in transition, coming to terms with themselves, marginal, closed but proud, and friendly. It was also a way to look at my mixed Indian and Burmese origins and find away to deal with these churnings in my late teens and early twenties.
At Art Heritage Gallery, New Delhi
At Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai