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Monday, 8 February 2016

Kolkata 2224: Photographing the Surface to get beneath the Surface


At the beginning of December, on the Sunday, I finished rewatching the Apu Trilogy again. The last film was Aparajito, the one set in Calcutta (as it was then), the heartbreaking one where Apu finds a love that is traced through a series of glimpses and gestures that, despite their simplicity and their limited, are unsurpassed in movie history. And then he loses love, and the simplicity and violence of that loss is equally moving.


The same week, on the Wednesday, I finished reading a Sea of Poppies, the first in Amitav Ghosh's powerful and driving series on the opium trade. It traces the colonial history of India and the opium trade through the developing characters of the novel; their struggles, their hearts, their minds and their loves. And it's set in the Calcutta of the early 19th century, a company city where the East India Company rules.


The next day Kolkata 2224 by Pierre Defaix arrived in the post. It was interesting to see how a photobook by an outsider made in a relatively short time compared to the film and the novel.

Well, truth be told it doesn't compare. How can one expect it to? It's a book by an outsider that presents a surface view of the city. But it's a very good book for all that and the surface it presents is surface pure and simple. It's a book about the surface, but also the depths that the surface can reveal.

It comes with no text (I don't even know what the 2224 refers to) - is it something rhythmic, something musical because that might be a pattern the pictures are trying to create.

The book has a nice blue cover with 2224 written across it in gold (is the number something to do with gold. Or is it part of the Indian Criminal Code like Shri 420 ) and then you're into the book. It's all full-bleed dyptichs with the occasional landscape image processed to 50% opaqueness strung across two pages. These images are wider images of street life; the traffic, a petrol station, a pavement outside a mosque.

So there's the broader context.

The single images focus on the surfaces of the city. There are painted nails and painted walls, there's smoke and laundry strung on a wire. It's all very sensory. The roots of an urban banyan tree reach into the concrete ground, garbage is strewn across temple floors and flood-riddled gutters; flower petals merge with plasticbags, clay shards with broken twigs and rotting leaves.

It's a city that has lived a life then, and the life is visible on the skin of its streets. Wet hair, wet backs, wet hands. Water, oil, blood and slime. Defaix is trying to take us into the sensory overload of Kolkata and he succeeds. We see chickens and goats and fish, all dead, all dripping their life fluids away.

The elements are there; earth, air, water and fire, with wisps of smoke creating a pattern throughout the book. Hands are another trope and so is the rubbish of the city, the waste on which it is built, on which it was founded, on which it lives and dies. And that's how the book ends. With a picture of a licked hand paired with a gutter full of trash. Kolkata 2224.

Buy the Book Here

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