The photographer and artist couple Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral have unearthed a wealth of stories while chasing clues to identify the places in photographs of Bengal taken by an unknown American in 1945.
“Astonishing” was how the American couple described their weeklong sleuthing across Kharagpur, Salua and Pingla in West Midnapore, helped by two IIT Kharagpur students, Subhajyoti Ghosh and Siddharth Agarwal.
Metro had on February 26 reported on Alan and Jerri’s research — funded by Alan’s 2013 Fulbright-Nehru senior scholarship — into the background of a bunch of black-and-white photographs found in a box they had picked up for $20 at an estate sale in Chicago.
In the box were photographs of six temples, three of which the couple have located in Kharagpur — Balaji, Kali and Nandeswar. One they had traced three years ago. “The Nandeswar temple has a new portico which destroys the façade’s splendour,” said Jerri.
The couple have identified the man standing beside the Balaji temple in one of the photographs. “He was A. Narayan Swamy Naidu, the priest of the Balaji temple. He had founded the temple in 1935. We met his great-grandson Raju Naidu and daughter-in-law Padmavati, who is over 80 now. She became emotional when presented with a copy of our 1945 photograph,” said Jerri.
A movie theatre in one of the photographs has been identified as Bombay cinema in the railway town. Residents who were shown two photographs of markets suggested that one is the sprawling Golbazar in the heart of the town and other is located in Salboni, around 50km from Kharagpur.
Alan and Jerri have learned that the photographer was attached to a regiment of American soldiers stationed in Salua — around 5km from Kharagpur — which functioned as an airbase during World War II. Since 1949, Salua has been the headquarters of the Eastern Frontier Rifles (EFR). Gorkha personnel of the EFR helped the couple identify a laundry, a wall and a pond seen in some of the pictures.
“We have come to know that at the Salua base African-American soldiers were housed outside the main camp, segregated from the whites. That is not surprising as the US army wasn’t integrated till the 1950s. What is surprising was that the black soldiers were housed next to the munition storage areas. So if the Japanese bombed the area, wouldn’t they be the first to suffer a direct hit?” asked Alan.
“The whole issue of American presence in Kharagpur is shrouded in mystery,” he said. The couple have come across brief mention of their presence in documents at the Nehru Museum of Science and Technology, housed in a sprawling Raj-era building where the country’s oldest Indian Institute of Technology was inaugurated in 1951.
Under the British rule, the building had served as a jail for political prisoners — Hijli Detention Camp — and later as the command post of the American airbases in the region.
“We know that the Americans were doing reconnaissance work anticipating a Japanese land invasion but are uncertain about some details relevant to our search, such as why our photographer left his base and wandered around clicking all those photos of village life and temples and people with what was then a cumbersome camera. India’s role in World War II is still foggy and our search will perhaps clear up some areas. We’re seeking permission to gain access to the interior of the Salua base,” said Alan.
The couple will submit an application to the American authorities under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of documents related to the Hijli Detention Camp/Command Post and the Salua base, so they could draw a clearer picture of the photographer.
The couple’s last stop in their search was Naya village in Pingla (50km from Kharagpur), where they commissioned two jorano pats (narrative story scrolls unfurled to the accompaniment of songs) by patua Swarna Chitrakar, based on the 1945 pictures. “She has constructed a personal narrative based on a dozen or so photographs,”said Jerri.
The couple will deliver a lecture on the photographs and their search for the locations at the Victoria Memorial Hall at 5.30pm on Monday.