The city of Kolkata—and earlier Calcutta—has been the subject of a few visually rich books. Some readers may remember Desmond Doig’s amazing line drawings and tongue-in-cheek notes in Calcutta: An Artist’s Impression (1968), a rage when it came out, published by The Statesman for whom he worked. Essays in the two volumes of Sukanta Chaudhuri’s edited Calcutta: Living City (1990) are richly embellished with reproductions of paintings, lithographs and photographs, and White and Black (2009) with photographs by Christopher Talor and text by Soumitra Das is an interesting visual-cum-textual documentary on the city’s imperial past.
Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata is different from earlier presentations as its rich, four-colour photographs and write-ups focus on a sample of the myriad places of worship scattered over this vast metropolis. Jawhar Sircar’s absorbing introduction (a couple of textual references would have been very useful) provides a context to the area, its history and many belief systems. At times, however, for a non-Kolkata person, it could be a bit confusing to sort out what the author calls the ‘West bank’—the earlier European and British settlements—and the ‘East bank’ or the Greater Kolkata area. Sircar reminds us that though ‘Kalighat was the oldest religious site of any consequence’, there were two other Hindu shrines in Dharam-tala (dedicated to a folk god called Dharmaraj) and another at Chowringhee known as Chowringhee Baba. And, as by 1645, the Armenians had set up a commercial establishment in the Dutch colony of Chinsurah, they were clearly a presence when Job Charnock arrived in 1690. Thus, the first building of the Holy Armenian Church of Nazareth ‘was certainly the oldest Christian structure in these parts’
(p. 14). As Sircar rightly points out, in a country like India where ‘history and legend mix so easily’, it is no easy task to identify and locate places of worship. Nor is it always easy to get permission to photograph them.
Well-known photographer Mala Mukerjee’s carefully angled and meticulously composed images coupled with academic Jael Silliman’s text take the reader-viewer on an effortless tour of 31 places of worship in this sprawling city. Beginning with the early 19th century Kalighat temple, the duo reminds us of the history of Rani Rashmoni’s Kali temple at Dakshineshwar built some years later. Its founder was a philanthropist, social reformer and contributor to educational institutions, and quite obviously, an exceptional woman in deeply patriarchal times. The photographer’s shot of a barge going down the river in front of the temple is a study in tonality, the terracotta of the temple roofs picking up similar shades in the crowded vessel. After the gracious Ramakrishna temple at Belur framed against a monsoon sky, the focus shifts to the more contemporary—to the ISKCON and Birla temples and the Swaminarayan edifice, ‘the newest of temples built on a grand scale in Kolkata’. Silliman informs us that though the gopuram of the Baikunthanath temple is modelled on south Indian temples such as those at Mahabalipuram and Madurai, it was built by wealthy Marwari traders for Vaishnavite worshippers from all parts of India.
Following Tipu Sultan’s ignominious defeat and then death in Srirangapatnam, the British exiled his sons to the marshy outskirts of the city of Calcutta, near present-day Tollygunge. However, the youngest of his many sons was able to get back a handsome pension that enabled the purchase of properties and land on which to build two mosques dedicated to the Sultan. Mukerjee’s fine photographs and Silliman’s interesting description draw attention to the multiple domes atop the mosques as well as to the melding of styles: Palladian arches, Tuscan pillars and louvred door panels that became a hallmark of late 19th-century Indo-British architecture in Calcutta and its environs. Particularly interesting are the photographs of Bhonsri Shah’s masjid before and after its renovation as close-ups of the earlier ruin clearly show intricate brick work that lay below the newly-plastered building. It is also one that was photographed by German photographer Frederic Fiebig (not Flebig as mentioned in the book) in the 1850s. The famed Nakhoda mosque–—that can accommodate as many as 10,000 worshippers in its halls is well-documented by both the photographer and writer.
Not unexpectedly, St. Paul’s Cathedral, its rich stained glass window by Edward Burne-Jones and frescoes are aptly represented by Mukerjee’s lens as is a double-spread of the Parasnath Jain temple with its extraordinary mélange of styles bordering on the bizarre. Little wonder, as Sillman informs us, that it became the only Indian temple to feature on a British postage stamp! The Parsee fire temple, Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, the Nam Soon Church—one of the seven Buddhist-Daoist Chinese temples—the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity and even a quaint street shrine are a few of the other sacred places documented by Mukerjee and Silliman.
Apart from Jawhar Sircar’s introduction, a note by Mala Mukerjee and Jael Silliman on how they came upon this project and the time it took to complete it, the hurdles they might have faced, what determined their choice and so on would have been interesting tidbits to reflect on as the reader-viewer races along with the duo from one religious site to another. It would also have been instructive to know—on a rough approximation—how many such sites dot this landscape. In parts, the text too could have been a tad more lively and anecdotal: for instance, the Holy Church of Nazareth abuts on to Old China Bazar Street. What goes on in that street and does it in any way relate to the religious building? Or, as Silliman writes, today the Greek Orthodox Church’s congregation is made up largely of ‘local residents’. One would love to know who they are—and why indeed they choose to worship in this church rather than any other? Is there some hidden Greek connection? And when Silliman does provide snippets such as those about the founder of Nakhoda mosque—a rich seafarer—and on the history of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the book evokes a different level of interest. As does her discussion around the Metiabruz Shahi Imambara which becomes a mini-journey into facets of Islamic rule in India. Overall, some judicious editing was in order and would have taken care of words being repeated in a sentence or consecutive sentences beginning with the same word. Or even the occasional inconsistency such as the use of both `St. Paul’s cathedral’ and `Saint Paul’s cathedral’ in the same entry that also dropped the hypen in Burne-Jones.
Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata is a well-produced, neat little book that provides some unusual insights and information on an old city’s diasporic world, polyglot culture and belief systems. Though, for a longer shelf-life, there could have been a hardcover edition as well as the present flexibound version more suited for a backpacker’s knapsack than for a library or collector’s bookshelf.
Malavika Karlekar is Editor, Indian Journal of Gender Studies and deeply interested in photography, particularly of the colonial period.
“Where Gods Reside: Sacred Places of Kolkata is different from earlier presentations as its rich, four-colour pho-tographs and write-ups focus on a sample of the myriad places of worship scattered over this vast metropolis.”
In Dance Theatre of
India: Crossing New Aesthetics and Cul-tures, Katia Legeret-Manochhaya explores the various rasas of Bharatanatyam and other dance forms, both as a dancer and a researcher. In the milieu of diverse linguistic and cultural interpretations, the book is a field of experimentation where the modalities for expressions and cultural differences would forever reinvent themselves. The photographic portraits of various live dance performances throughout the book uphold the author’s perspective for the readers.
Niyogi Books, 2018, pp. 142, R650.00