Roll Magazine recently met up with Woodstock resident and distinguished photographer Fionn Reilly to discuss his new book of photographs of Kolkata, the Indian city formerly called Calcutta and known to the world as the site of Mother Teresa’s mission of mercy and healing.
Roll: What brought you to Kolkata in the first place, Fionn?
Reilly: A trip to India for me had to include Kolkata. The photographs of Raghubir Singh, the films of of Satyajit Ray, the specter of The Black Hole, its history, the reputation for being big and chaotic plus a conversation with a merchant banker from Bombay made it somewhere I had to discover.
When did you start seeing the possibility of a book of Kolkata photographs? What was it that enthralled you as a photographer?
As I started to develop my 30-odd rolls of film from my first trip, the excitement grew. I felt that I was on to something and my passion for the place increased. I had gone to Kolkata but by shooting in black and white my camera was revealing an older Calcutta. I knew I would be going back to get more pictures.
No. I just felt that I wanted to see more and get better pictures. I still do. I would happily continue to do more of the same, maybe making a few more discoveries on the way. I would love to add some domestic interiors to the collection. In the space of four years I saw no change at all.
Being in Kolkata conjures up visits to Naples in the ‘60s, the same open-ness and welcome without its people clinging or demanding anything. How, for you, does Kolkata compare with other cities you’ve known?
Interesting comparison to Naples. I was only in Naples for a crazy Kolkata like taxi ride from train station to port. I cannot think of anywhere I have been with the streets teeming with so much human energy. Maybe Bucharest has a similar thing going on with a population going about its business seemingly oblivious to its backdrop of crumbling empire.
The stereotype of Calcutta, lepers and flea-ridden beggars, has helped to keep it off the tourist map. How amazed most Westerners who discover it must be to find the efficient Kolkata modern subway system that puts the MTA to shame. What are your thoughts in this regard? The reality of Kolkata versus the myth.
India is so paradoxical. Seems logical, in that respect, that the city of so much poverty and suffering IS the “City of Joy”. I have to say that I have seen plentiful scenes of human suffering in Kolkata, as I have in Delhi, but my feeling of Kolkata is that it is a city with a smile on its face. I love the subway. Air-conditioned, subterranean efficiency underneath the boiling chaos above. Each day I would take the metro, in a flash, to the top end of the city and spend all day walking back down town through a labyrinth of streets and back alleys.
My generation was raised with Satyajit Ray’s films — the Bengali Chekhov. I’m glad you mentioned him. I still find elements of Bengali artistic temperament — so different from the Bollywood style of the rest of India — everywhere I go in West Bengal. What about you?
The first time I went to India, it was as a journalist covering the Mumbai stock exchange. I remember asking a banker at dinner what he thought of Satyajit Ray. He said that Ray presented a “very negative side of India”. That conversation made me want to go to Kolkata even more. I can’t imagine films like Jalshagar (The Music Room) or Pather Panchali coming out of Mumbai.
Elements also of the long Communist rule over West Bengal: people fed and clothed at modest expense. Did you encounter remnants of this?
Big yes to that question. I had a 25-cent eye exam in a crumbing old palace. Another time I got sick and got treated for next to nothing by a doctor with a very plummy accent who told me his other practice was in London’s Gloucester Road. Every time I have been to Kolkata there have been marches and demonstrations. The spirit that booted the British out from Calcutta to Delhi remains.
My eye is drawn to the visual imprint of time. Time erodes things but that is a backdrop to the force of life going on in front of it. Here we are in the 21st century but In Kolkata life goes on in scenes more akin to Charles Dickens’ London. I love this quote by Rabrindranath Tagore: “In the streets of Calcutta I sometimes imagine myself a foreigner, and only then do I discover how much is to be seen, which is lost so long as its full value in attention is not paid. It is the hunger to really see which drives people to travel to strange places.”
What was it that kept you coming back to Kolkata?
Something about it fits with what I dig about life. I fantasize about living there.
Will you go back again? Or have you exhausted your affair with the city?
I will go back again. I have been four times and I get a little emotional every time I leave. The book is printed and bound but I have not finished.
Roll: All great cities are inexhaustible, and Kolkata is one — perhaps one of the last, its overlapping folds of history as yet unreconstructed. It has been preserved for us from tourist hordes by its reputation, not for violence but for suffering. Yet I’ve found that anyone who knows the city loves it. It’s so nice to have somewhere like that, even if you can’t be there. A true north in the compass of the heart.
A New Kolkata is being built, out by the airport, full of Western hotels and boutiques. In order to say you’ve visited, it soon may not even be necessary to go into the old Kolkata. This might preserve the old city a little longer. Thank you, Fionn, for helping to memorialize that city, and thank you for talking to Roll Magazine.
For more about this inspiring book visit
Carey Harrison recently completed The Heart Beneath, a quartet of novels he began 49 years ago and which he regards as his life’s chief endeavor. (A separate series of novels, the Justice quintet, was fitted in, over the years, as were three more unconnected novels.) The Heart Beneath was published by Dr. Cicero Books in a revised edition in September 2016. That month, Harrison began a year as a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin, who awarded him the Fellowship in honor of his lifetime’s output of fiction. He continues to write and teach at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.