Kolkata Travelogue

imageI recently got around to tidying up the Travel section on my web site, and at the same time posted new images from my last trip to Kolkata.

I first visited Kolkata back in 1986 (it was still called Calcutta back then). The trip was a nightmare. The friend I was travelling with ended up in hospital with dyssentri, and instead of travelling around the country, we were stuck in the city which back then was quite horrible. It was extremely overcrowded – people were fleeing the impoverished countryside in masses and ended up as squatters in Kolkata. The city was polluted, smelly and traffic perpetually congested. I literally still had nightmares of the place months after being back in Europe. It took me almost 30 years to go back to the city, but when I did, in 2013, I found a place much changed for the better. It is a lot less crowded, and it is less dirty and hectic than Mumbai for instance. I returned there again in 2014 and 2015, which tells you that now I am quite fond of the place.

Kolkatans take pride in that their city is different from other Indian cities, and indeed it is, even though, as an outsider, I may find it difficult to judge just what that difference is. Kolkata is relatively young, of course; daring back to the 18th century only. It used to be India’s most populous city, until Mumbai overtook it, and during the British occupation, it was the capital of the British Raj. And indeed, it is this British past which characterises Kolkata to a large degree – certainly in its architecture, from the Victoria Memorial on down to the many stately villas, many of them now sadly crumbling or being demolished. The city once boasted a vibrant Jewish community, which numbered 5000 before Indian independence, but is now down to 26 members. Similarly, Kolkata is home to India’s only Chinatown, but the ethnic Chinese community has also dwindled considerably.

The city is named after the goddess Kali, and a friend of mine argues that it this which leads to women being far more empowered in Kolkata than in the rest of India.

The photos I put up are from those three last trips – unfortunately I have no photos left from the 1986 trip. I organised the images into three sets:

  1. The City: as the name implies, photos from around the city. It is not meant to be a travel guide, and many of the landmark sites are missing from the collection. Instead I have included images of those places which interested me the most. My favourite ones were probably the overgrown grounds of the National Library and the equally overgrown Victorian-era South Park Street Cemetery. Also included are photos from two of the three Kolkatan synagogues.
  2. Kolkata At Night: these are scenes from night time festivities during three Kolkata festivals: the Durga Pujas (in honour of the goddess Durga, a manifestation of the goddess Kali), the Kali Durgas (in honour of Kali), and the all-Indian festival of Diwali.
  3. Across the River: images from the area outside Kolkata, on the opposite banks of the Hooghly River, as that particular branch of the Ganges is called –  Chandannagar, an area which once belonged to the French (and Portuguese and Swedes).

For more India travel photos, click here.

For portrait and street photography from India, click here.

Click here to read more on Kolkata’s Jewish community.

South Park Street Cemetery

India By Night / Faces of India 2015

In November of this year I returned to India, my 11th visit so far. This time I did not travel around much but for personal reasons I decided to stay in Kolkata for the better part of the trip, with a few days also spent in Mumbai.  This time was the first time that I did not take any analog camera with me to India; indeed I decided to travel light and take only a single camera, the Fujifilm X-T10, with two lenses, the 35mm and the 16-50mm. 
Each camera which I took with me over the years was different and unique, be it the Diana+, the Polaroid cameras or the panoramic Holga camera I had with me last year. With the versatile X-T10 I was looking for something which would coax out something unique out of it, and I soon found it. The brilliant 35mm f1.4 lens is of course perfect for night photography, and I was more than spoilt with opportunities to shoot at night.
My stay in Kolkata was timed to coincide with two back to back festivals, Diwali and Kali Pujas, a festival dedicated to Kolkata’s patron goddess Kali. During the nights leading up to and over these two festivals, people were out at night, celebrating and having fun. Obviously this was a perfect chance to capture lively night scenes, and I had great fun doing so. Add to that also a couple of evenings spent in Mumbai’s Juhu Beach and Marine Drive areas where people gather after nightfall to hang out, relax and have fun. India is a country of colours, hence I decided to shoot mostly in colour, I broke out the black and white filters only rarely.
All these night time activities have resulted in a set which I have now uploaded: India By Night
All this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t out in the day time taking photos, so I added a second set, Faces of India 2015, with portrait and street photography from Kolkata.
As in the previous years, I came back from India with the fondest memories, leaving me very much looking forward to the next trip back there.
Enjoy the photos. 

India Travelogue Updates

I have updated the Travelogue section on India, with sets of new images from Odisha, including the video posted in the previous blog post; Idols by the Sea, a set on the last day of the Durga Pujas on Juhu Beach in Mumbai, and an expanded section on Kolkata. The sets include a number of the Holga and Polaroid shots from those sets I posted earlier, but there are also a number of iPhone shots as well, as ever most of them taken using the trusted Hipstamatic app. 

This should be the last posting on India then, at least for a while…, 😉

Station to Station – video

Station to Station – By Train Through Odisha on Vimeo.

I shot this video on the iPhone while taking a train ride from Puri, in the Indian state of Odisha, to Kolkata in West Bengal. I left Puri a day before the cyclone Hudhud struck the area, on one of the last trains out of there.
In Kolkata, I edited the movie in iMovie on the iPhone, often while stuck in a car in traffic. As soundtrack I used the track ‘Longing’ by the Indian band Indian Ocean.

Holga Panoramas From India

For my last trip to India back in October, I packed a new camera, a Holga 120Pan, i.e. the panoramic version of the Holga camera which shoots 6×12, 180° images. I didn’t have a chance to try out the camera beforehand, so I didn’t know what to expect, especially after having had mixed results with my first attempts using my other panoramic camera, the Belair 6-12 (read the blog entry here). However, after having finally developed and scanned the films, I must say that the camera exceeded my expectations. Granted, the light conditions were pretty much excellent in India, but the results are technically very good: no vignette, only a bit of darkening towards the left and right border of the exposure, and with the Holga’s trademark blurring toward the edges, which adds to the magic of the images. 

I shot one black and white Ilford ISO 400 film and for the rest a mix of Kodak and Fuji ISO 160 colour films. I shot the black and white film at my initial destination, Mumbai, while I used the colour films for the rest of the trip, chiefly in and around the city of Bhubaneswar, which is in Odisha, a state on the East coast of India. Additionally there are a few images from Chandannagar, which is close to Kolkata and which used to be a French colony. 

I finally uploaded a selection of the photos to the Holga section of the site, click here to view.

Also, I put together a selection of the best portrait pictures from the trip, taken with the various cameras I had taken along – the Holga, the SX-70 and the iPhone. This set can be found in the People section under the banner Wonder If I Know Him Now.


I Wonder If I Know Him Now: India Revisited

This past October I returned to India for what was my tenth trip to that country. While revisiting familiar places, I also spend time in a corner of India which I haven’t been to before, namely Odisha, or Orissa as it was formerly called. This western state lays claim to some of the oldest temples in all of India, if not the world – temples up to 2000 years old; but for all that, it is not really a tourist destination – at least not a place where western tourists flock to. As such I saw but three westerners during my stay in Bhubaneswar, and while Puri and its beaches attract a number of backpackers, they are vastly outnumbered by the Indian tourists and pilgrims. Puri is home to the large 12th century Jaganath temple, one of India’s four holy pilgrim sites. Bhubaneswar is home to a range of temples, some of them dating back to BC, including the imposing Lingaraj temple with its 54m high tower. Other holy places nearby are the caves at Khandagiri and Udayagiri, hewn out of the rock by Jain priests in the second century BC, and a more recent Buddhist pagoda in Dhauri, honouring the warrior-king turned pacifist Buddhist, Ashoka. The largest temple in the vicinity is the Sun Temple in Kornarak, dating back to the 13th century.

Odisha is not as spectacular as Rajasthan is, the northern state I visited on my

last two trips to India. Rajasthan boasts glamorous palaces and colourful cities which Odisha doesn’t have. Odisha certainly has magnificent landscapes, but in the end, to me as an outsider at least, the region seems to be very much about the holy places, and thus about religion and spirituality. Obviously, India is by nature a very spiritual country, or should I say, Indians are a very spiritual people. Not all, of course, but many, even those who are not outright religious, consider themselves to be spiritual. This is reflected in their outlook, their customs big and small, their food, their adornments (which are never just adornments but always symbols of something), and not to mention the many religious festivals held throughout the year. Odisha, with its high concentration of temples and pilgrims, and it’s lack of worldly attractions, seems very much like an epicenter of this spirituality; and indeed, there was not a single person from Orissa who I met who didn’t, by word or by deed, displayed their affinity towards, or veneration of, all things religious and spiritual. 

Religion is not something I generally think highly of. I believe it is at the root of most evil perpetrated in the world, as it constitutes the greatest single cause of hatred and intolerance; and certainly India had and still has its fair share of strife caused by religious intolerance. Yet it is very hard not to be charmed by the outlook on life which rises out of the beliefs of many of the Indians whom I met over the years. For starters, their attitude is generally a very inclusive one, at least with regard to visitors (whether or not the same tolerance that is granted outsiders is shown to members of one’s own family or close friends is a different discussion). It’s also very life affirming and optimistic. And it even produces effects that you wouldn’t normally think – such as the fact (as some people claim) that the preponderant veneration of the goddess Kali in  the city Kolkata leads to women in Kolkata being generally more empowered than in other parts of India.

This makes India a good place to visit as the people you meet are open and welcoming, tolerant of one’s quirks and differences, curious in a good way and ready to become friends. I’ve stated this in previous posts, but to me, visiting India is more about meeting people than it is about seeing great sights. And this time, even more than on previous visits, that fact is reflected in the photos I took. Yes, I also photographed temples and other sights and aspects, but 90% of the photos I took are portraits. Indians in general are happy to be photographed, all you need is ask. I asked pilgrims and priests, families on the beach, passers-by on the street. Sometimes, I didn’t even need to ask as some, mainly youngsters, happily volunteered. The result is an eclectic mix of people from all walks of life.

On the last two visits to India I had chiefly taken colour polaroid films with me, but each time I was unhappy with the resulting  exposures as most of them were discoloured – whether by the heat or by the airport x-ray machines, I don’t know, but I found the resulting red discolouration more than just a bit distracting (see my earlier post here). Thus, this time around, I packed but one colour film and seven black and white films, including Impossible Project’s new Pigeonhole film with its round border, which I found perfect for portrait photography. This decision paid off as I came back with many more worthwhile polaroids than I did on previous trips. 

I put together a selection of the best instant photographs, focusing on the portraits, under the title: I Wonder If I Know Him Now: Faces of India 2014. I have yet to develop a series of Holga films which will follow later, which, together with a selection of digital photos, will focus on other aspects of the visit.


Finally: the title of this blog post and of the set is based on a poem by the Kolkatan writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore:

I wonder if I know him

I wonder if I know him
In whose speech is my voice,
In whose movement is my being,
Whose skill is in my lines,
Whose melody is in my songs
In joy and sorrow. 

I thought he was chained within me,
Contained by tears and laughter,
Work and play. 

I thought he was my very self
Coming to an end with my death.
Why then in a flood of joy do I feel him
In the sight and touch of my beloved? 

This ‘I’ beyond self I found
On the shores of the shining sea.
Therefore I know
This ‘I’ is not imprisoned within my bounds. 

Losing myself, I find him
Beyond the borders of time and space.
Through the Ages
I come to know his Shining Self

In the life of the seeker,

In the voice of the poet. 

From the dark clouds pour the rains.
I sit and think:
Bearing so many forms, so many names,
I come down, crossing the threshold

Of countless births and deaths. 

The Supreme undivided, complete in himself,
Embracing past and present,
Dwells in Man.

Within Him I shall find myself –

The ‘I’ that reaches everywhere.

(Translated by William Radice)

Holga, Jaipur and Kolkata

A few days ago I finally got around to scanning in the remaining Holga photos which I shot in India on the recent trip. A selection of these is now up on the Holga page. [Click here to view]

I also created two new sets in the Travelogue section, one with shots from Jaipur and one with photos from Kolkata. The Kolkata section features shots taken in more unusual circumstances. For one, I was there for the last night of a religious festival, the Durga Pujas  So a number of the photos show the Durga altars that were set up for the festival, and which would be taken down the next day and sunk into the river. What made the night different was that at the same time the fringes of the cyclone Phailin, which struck the Bay of Bengal that day, raged through Kolkata. So while normal you’d have to queue for an hour to get into the makeshift temples to see the altars, now here was hardly a crowd (of course it also meant that you were soaking wet at the end of the night). 

Additionally, there are some photos taken in the two Jewish synagogues that exist in a Kolkatta. The city used to have a Jewish community of over 3,500, with most of the original Jewish settlers having come over from Iraq in the 18th century onwards. Today, that community has dwindled down to 26. Many thanks to Jael Silliman for showing us around the synagogues, the Beth El Synagogue, built in 1856, and the Magen David Synagogue built in 1884.

Rajasthan Revisited

In October I went on my 9th trip to India. The two-and-a-half-week journey took me back to familiar places – Mumbai and Udaipur – as well as a new place (Jaipur) and a city which I had last visited 26 years ago: Kolkata – or Calcutta, as it was still known then.

Jaipur was about sightseeing, but the rest of the trip was not – it was mostly about catching up with friends. As such, the journey turned out to be a study of contrasts: I went to villages in the mountains around Udaipair where at the best of time people subside on very little and where this year’s overlong rainy season destroyed the maize crops and thus the villagers’ income for the year. I visited a friend’s house whose family is living four people to a single room. In Kolkata I was shown around the (now empty) palace of the Maharaja of Burdwan. 

My stay in India coincided with a nine-day religious festival, Navratri, dedicated to the worship of the goddess Durga. In Kolkata, I spent a night visiting the Durga Pujas, and in Udaipur I was ‘coerced’ to participate in the traditional Garba dances which take place in honour if Durga

I also met two of the 26 remaining members of Kolkata’s Jewish community, which once numbered more than 3000, and visited the two synagogues there (I also visited a number of Hindu and Jain temples).
As for the touristy bits, there were a few: the Amber Fort and the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur, Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, the Monsoon Palace in the hills above Udaipur.

I’ve said this in previous blog entries, and I’m mentioning it here again: India for me has always been about the people. Which is why, this time around, most of the photos I brought back are portraits or street photographs, with few exceptions. I had with me again a Polaroid and a Holga camera. Unfortunately, just like last time, the Polaroid films were damaged by the airport x-ray machines (despite taking a film with lower ISO) and the prints have a noticeable red tint. I also took a fair number if photos with the iphone, mostly using the hipstamatic app and choosing a black & white ‘film’. 

I posted the following sets:

Instant Travelog Blog

Impossible Project, the manufacturer of the new Polaroid films, published this short feature of mine on their ‘Instant Travelog’ blog, about my trip to India back in January, together with a selection of the Polaroids I shot there.[Click here to view]

India Revisited

If you’d ask me what my favourite country for visiting was, I’d say without hesitation, India. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the country eight times in the recent years, initially for work but recent trips being for leisure.

Now India is one of those places where visitors come away either loving it or hating it. It is a place of extremes. It is rich in history and in culture, reflected in the temples and palaces but also in the mores and beliefs that mark everyday life. On the other hand, especially in large cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, the squalor and the misery are omnipresent – as are ostentatious displays of wealth. And obviously India has recently been making mostly negative headlines around the world. But defining India by its social and economic problems is doing it as much injustice as defining it by its palaces and temples. India to me has always been about its people – the openness, the generosity and the ease with which Indian welcome strangers in their midst. From each and every trip there, I came back with great experiences and new friendships. 

My recent trip to India, from Christmas 2012 to mid-January 2013, included a few firsts. One was that this was my first trip to Northern India, specifically to the Sate of Rajasthan. It was also the first time that I was travelling alone – although that is a very relative term: you’re never really alone in India. Every day I found myself in good company, and I came back with experiences I would never have made hadn’t I been on the road by myself. Despite earlier plans to tour around, I ended up spending a good deal of time in the city of Udaipur, which turned out to be a good decision. By spending more time in one place, I ended up not just meeting people but also spending time with them, and certainly the highlight of this trip were various motorbike trips around the city and the surrounding mountains with friends I had made there. 

Udaipur is not that big, and it is a good deal more laid back than the cities I visited previously. It features several lakes, several palaces – the huge City Palace, the Lake Palace on an island (now a luxury hotel), the Monsoon Palace on a hilltop and a few minor ones as well. It is prominently featured in the 1983 James Bond movie, Octopussy.

Winter is the main tourist season in Rajasthan as the climate is really agreeable that time of year, but for all that, I was surprised not to see that many tourists around the city – I guess most spend their time being driven around in air conditioned cars and buses. The most visible tourists were the backpackers, but if you stayed away from the places mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, it was easy to avoid them as well. When I visited a graveyard where the local Maharajas (kings) have been buried over the centuries, I found the place to be deserted. When I asked the rickshaw driver, he simply said, ‘Yes, empty. It’s not in Lonely Planet, na.’ 

I said earlier that for me, India is about its people. When I now think back on the trip, the most vivid memories are not the tourist highlights – splendid as they were – but the encounters I made, and the friendships that remain.

This was also the first India trip where I took a Polaroid camera with me. Unfortunately I had chosen to take a 600 camera with PX 680 film, which turned out to be a problem, as it reacted badly to the multiple x-raying at the airports – many of the colour prints ended up having a red discolouring. A fair number turned out alright though, and fortunately I also had some black and white films with me. 

In the photos which I uploaded, you will find a good number of people shots – Indians are not shy about being photographed, or for that matter, photographing others; and I made a deal with the people I photographed in that I shot one photo for them and one for me. Unfortunately ‘though, the best photo I possibly took on the tour didn’t stay with me for long: after having photographed an old priest in the Jain temple in Ranakpur, the gentleman grabbed the photo and ran off before I had a chance to shoot another one. I later saw him proudly showing the picture around. I guess he was happy with the result. 

Beside using the Polaroid camera, I also shot a number of films with a Holga camera. Unfortunately, here too, disaster struck as a malfunctioning camera causing blurred results. Only a handful of pics turned out ok. Because the Polaroid films were damaged, I shot more photos than I normally would have on the iPhone, mostly using the Hipstamatic app. I also put together a selection of those images. 

Here then are the links: