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A place to call home beyond the border

The comic and tragic consequences of the East-West divide of the state of Bengal have had a very deep impact on the life, art and literature of this region.

People new to this state will find it difficult to follow the subtle manifestations of the rivalry — mock, in most cases — that still exists between the inhabitants of this partitioned state.

But this is of no concern to Thomas Meyer, a photographer from Berlin whose exhibition, Exile in Calcutta, organised by the Goethe Institut and Max Mueller Bhavan opens at the Seagull Foundation for the Arts on Thursday. He says he belongs to Ostkreuz, a photographers’ collective.

They decided to work on the theme of “borders” and in 2012 he was invited by Max Mueller Bhavan to Calcutta to research it. It was his first visit to India and he was assisted by photographer Dev Nayak and Sharmistha Sarker. He was here for three weeks but he worked without break.

Meyer says he discovered that some of his “subjects” — people who had been forced to leave their hearth and home in Bangladesh because of violence and animosity in that country and seek refuge in Calcutta — even those who had made good here, did not feel at home. They felt nostalgic about the “home” they had left behind.

Also, while the underclasses were at a loss for words, the educated ones were very articulate. Their interviews were recorded and these are part of the captions of the exhibits. These are all large colour (a trifle too gaudy occasionally) prints — mostly portraits of individuals and shots of the highrise apartment blocks, which are sprouting all over the city, and a single one of the interior of a mall.

Meyer used a digital camera. It is obvious that his “subjects” had posed for these staged shots. “I tried to keep it documentary. Show them physically and their environment — where they work and live. I wanted to show the city without getting too much into cliches,” says Meyer.

He chose “subjects” from all walks of life — some well-known faces included — but they are mostly Hindus. Leaving out Muslims was a conscious decision. As Friso Maecker, director, Goethe Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan, Calcutta, explained: “We can completely leave aside certain issues. That is the advantage of bringing a German photographer. We are presenting individual stories from an outsider’s point of view.”

So there is a dancer in her living room, a head honcho in his office, a priest on the landing of his house, a cyclerickshaw-puller on the road, a poultry butcher in New Market, a Kumartuli artisan in his studio, a guard in his single-room home with a tiled roof, a maid in her kitchen, a former minister, a writer in his study, and a Kalighat sex worker in her shabby workplace.

However inarticulate they may have been, the underclasses look most confident in Meyer’s frames. The poultry butcher looks straight into the camera. The sex worker may have been trafficked but she has no self-pity. She looks nonchalant.