Anwar Hossain's “Calcutta-Kolkata” at ULAB
Shams Bin Quader
On December 11, 2011 the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh (ULAB) hosted and inaugurated a photography exhibition titled “Calcutta-Kolkata”, by the legendary Bangladeshi Photographer and Cinematographer Anwar Hossain. Hossain has been a photographer since 1967 and a cinematographer since 1977. He has won more than 60 international awards in photography, and has been an associate of RPS, UK since 1989; of FIAP, Belgium and IIPC, Delhi since 1991. At the inauguration ceremony for his exhibit at ULAB, I had the rare opportunity of presenting a somewhat theoretical analysis of Hossain's photographs, from his Calcutta Kolkata collection. After observing the photos from Anwar Hossain's exhibit at the Lobby area of ULAB's Campus A, I noticed some recurring concepts. Let us begin with the first concept, none other than Kolkata itself.
Kolkata, formerly mispelled Calcutta, is the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. This great city was the capital of the British Empire till 1911 when the capital was relocated to Delhi. This colonial city was called Calcutta during the time of the British Empire, and just recently changed and renamed closer to its original form Kolkata.
As the former capital of India, Kolkata was the birthplace of modern Indian and Bengali literary, artistic and scholastic thought. Kolkata's tradition of welcoming new talent has made it a "city of furious creative energy."
While Mumbai is the capital of commercial cinemas in India, Kolkata is the house of art-films. Stallwarts like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen are the pride of Kolkata. The biggest event of Indian cinema was the release of Pather Panchali in 1955 made by Satyajit Ray.
There is no denying the history of Bengali language, literature, culture and heritage of Kolkata and all these things are intertwined with the cultural history of Bangladesh. That is why this city and its narration is so relevant.
The second recurring concept I found, was the fact that Hossain's photographs often include his hand as a part of the subject. This interesting and unique concept is sometimes called the concept of 'The Other'. Basically, when someone takes a photograph, the photographer is behind the camera, and the person or something which is being photographed is the Subject. But this concept adds a new dimension to photography, where the photographer is also part of the subject. This concept is also related with the depth of field.
Another concept in his photography is the concept of Juxtaposition. In many of his photos, Hossain places two subjects side by side, one being an image (graffiti, painting, flower etc.) and the other being a person. He does a wonderful job of Juxtaposition on many of his photos, which in turn gives them various new meanings and dimensions.
The act of placing similar or contrasting elements side-by-side adds interest to a photograph and holds the viewer's attention. Contrasting elements mean opposites such as-- large and small, light and dark, happy and sad, smooth and rough, new and old, horizontal and vertical etc. Each one of these examples draws the viewer in, makes them curious about the story.
The final recurring concept of Anwar Hossain's photographs, according to me, is the frequent symbols of Marxism or Communism. Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th century by two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
So what is the relation between Kolkata and Marxism? Few ideas are as closely associated with Marxism as the concepts of class and class conflict. It is, for instance, impossible to imagine what a Marxist philosophy of history or a Marxist revolutionary theory would be in their absence. In Hinduism, there is the Caste System. The Hindu caste system is comparable to class structures in other countries, except that this Indian system has been rigidly enforced and has lasted for two or three thousand years. The caste system was enforced as law throughout the subcontinent until the adoption of the Indian constitution in 1949, which outlawed the caste system. However, it remains a deeply ingrained social structure, particularly in rural India.
The Marxist concept of Class Struggle and the Hindu Caste System of India is the relation, I believe, between Marxism and Hossain's photographs in Kolkata. I believe that is why he has included Marxist symbols in many of his photographs.
It is impossible to touch all the concepts behind such a talented mind's photographs. What I have just presented are my own observations, and can be open to debate. An analysis of these concepts reveals much, not only for the Photography enthusiasts but also for the youth of this country. By sharing these concepts, hopefully the young generation will find more interest in Photography and will respect the works of the Living Bangladeshi Legend that is Anwar Hossain.
(The writer is a Senior Lecturer of the Department of Media Studies and Journalism, ULAB)