Pratidwandi (1970)

Pratidwandi (1970)
Jayshree Ray fixes her gaze on Central Calcutta in Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Calcutta, c. 1945: Photographs taken by a G.I.

In the mid-1940s, Calcutta swarmed with American G.I.s, on duty on the eastern front against a possible Japanese invasion. For most of these soldiers, the city -- with its imperious colonial architecture, the simultaneity of splendour and poverty, and seemingly strange lifestyle and practices of the 'natives' -- was a exotic wonder. Many of them found it worthwhile to take back visual memories of their stay and went around the city taking pictures of whatever they found curious. One such collection of sixty black-and-white photographs, taken by one Clyde Waddell, has come down to us in good condition and is preserved presently in several American libraries. Each photograph comes with a caption, put down by Waddell himself. Apart from giving us a glimpse of the bygone city through the lens of a military photographer, these accompanying captions also tell us something about how the American soldiers perceived and thought about the city and its people.

Aerial view of Calcutta downtown.  In upper left background is Hindustan building, U.S. Army HQ.  The oldest
part of the city starts at the esplanade and extends upwards.  The city was founded in the early 1700's.
Chowringhee Square.  The Mohammddan mosque, Juma Masjid, is shown at left.  This is actually one of the
quiet moments when GI trucks, taxis, bicycles and other modes of transport can move with comparative freedom.

Probably the largest market in the East is the New Market.  Convering several blocks in the downtown area,
the 2,000 stalls offer most anything you could ask for, wartime shortages excepted.  In addition to all the
items appealing to the local and tourist trade, the market contains giant food departments.
Indicative of the resumption of an age-old struggle for decent conditions is this immediate post-war
picture of tram-workers on strike.  The strike lasted nine days but employees won par of their demands.

These Sikh lads have chosen an auspicious stand for their business of selling 'precious' stone to GI's.
No more than 12 years old, these boys are shrewd and 'malum' English well enough to trim a sucker every time.

Of Calcutta's assortment of colorful and intriguing characters, the sikh taxi-driver and his co-pilot
rank high. The co-pilot was added in 1944 following an affray in which a soldier knifed a driver.  The two
GI's shown here are doing their best to convey their destination to the driver of the ancient jalopy.

This cocoanut market on Cornwallis street is a sample of the haphazard way in which many basars are operated.
The popular pauses for refreshment is indulged by Indian in central foreground drinking cocoanut milk.

Calcutta's poor from a line to buy kerosene at 6 a.m. Each little cubicle may contain a shop and living
quarters for a family ranging possibly from 6 to 12. Sanitary facilities consist of an open street drain.
A little snooping in Chinatown will turn up the little opium dens stuck down an alley (not recommended without police escort). Actually the smokers shown in this picture do it legally. Each den is licensed for so many pipes. Each pipe costs a rupee, a phial of opium five rupees. Average smoker consumes a phial a day and there are about 186 pipes licensed in Calcutta.

The indifference of the passerby on this downtown Calcutta street to the plight of the dying woman in 
the foreground is considered commonplace.  During the famine of 1943, cases like this were to be seen in most
every block, and though less frequent now, the hardened public reaction seems to have endured.

Indian movie actresses.  Dressed in Sarees, 19-year old Binota Bose, left, and Mrs. Rekha Mullick, right,
are right at home before the camera and lights.  Miss Bose earns $360.00 per month and Mrs. Mullick $210.00.
Both are well educated and prefer American books, pictures.

In a different post, we have already seen how the American military establishment decided to equip their soldiers who were to be posted  in Calcutta with some sort of a guide book to launch them in the foreign land. These photographs, taken by one such soldier once he landed up in Calcutta, completes this circle. It tells us how, equipped with this guide book, he explored his way across the length and breadth of the city.  In the process, he ended up creating a wonderful visual and textual archive for posterity.

Here is the link to the complete album, which has all the sixty photographs: