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The Mind’s Eye: Documenting Precious Memories

'Portrait': MF Hussain
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Artiste Sanjeet Chowdhury’s flat on Kolkata’s NSC Bose Road, Tollygunge, is in a mess. The room is in the process of painting. As such, the book shelves, which take about half of the sitting room, are in an almost destitute condition.

'Tannery': Life, as captured by the artiste
'Tannery': Life, as captured by the artiste

We sit in the other room, which, assuredly, is his study. His chair aside, there is a small sofa, which, again, being piled with books, leave me with only a lone chair in the room to sit on.

'Bismillah': Ustaad Bismillah Khan
'Bismillah': Ustaad Bismillah Khan

In the middle of the conversation, Sanjeet, shows me a photograph of his illustrious father — the legendary actor Basanta Chowdhury – shot by Henri Cartier-Bresson. I ask it for interview purposes only to be refused vehemently. “It’s not for public viewing or for sale.

'Portrait': Artist Ganesh Pyne
'Portrait': Artist Ganesh Pyne

A book on my father was published some years ago — I didn’t even give them,” he says, about his rare prized possession. “I keep it in my bedroom”, he adds. Excerpts from a chat.

In the category, ‘People and Books’, Sanjeet has shot director Goutam Ghose in his library. The director has this to say about Sanjeet: “All photos related to the books and the collectors are excellent. I loved the tonal quality of Sanjeet’s black-and-white images.”

SpaceInk: Why photography of all things?

Sanjeet: That is a long story. When I was 10-11 years old, my father said he would gift me a Baby Brownie camera. There was a studio called Image Studio in Bhawanipore, owned by Jyotish Chakraborty. Jyotish uncle or ‘Jyotish kaka’ to me, was a well-known photographer. He was very methodical and precise with the way he worked.

'Portrait': Director Goutam Ghose
'Portrait': Director Goutam Ghose

After my classes, say twice a week, I would meet up with ‘Jyotish kaka’ to learn to process films (camera roll) and the aesthetics of photography. I was lazy and disorderly. My father was a very polite sort of a man. He would never insist me or rub it in. Since I didn’t pay much attention, he left it at that.

'People and Books': Poet Nilanjan Bandopadhyay
'People and Books': Poet Nilanjan Bandopadhyay

So, I grew up without being a photographer. Then I finished my class 12 exams and in those couple of months in between, I attended a serious film workshop, attended by filmmakers across the country. It was held at Nandan. Mrinal Sen and Goutam Ghose also attended it. Back home, my father asked me about the daily proceedings.

Self-image: Sanjeet Chowdhury at work
Self-image: Sanjeet Chowdhury at work

I was already a fan of Goutam Ghose, because I was bowled over by his ‘Paar’. Goutam Ghose dropped in sometime later at our place and that was when I was introduced to him. Goutam da, upon hearing that I attended the workshop, exclaimed, “Good! That means you are interested in films. I am shooting with your father. Why don’t you come along?” The film was ‘Antarjali Yatra’ (1987).

'People and Books': Krishno Dey
'People and Books': Krishno Dey

I was very excited. I would be seeing a shoot for the first time. My father played the wife’s father in the film. It was in Sagardwip. I went up to my very close friend, who was like a brother to me – the late Samantak Das, who went on to become a professor at Jadavpur University. We were buddies. I told him, “didn’t your uncle gift you a camera from Paris? Can you lend it to me for a shoot?” He not only gave it to me, but also showed me how to use it.

'Tannery': As captured by the 'eye'
'Tannery': As captured by the 'eye'

On the set, I started taking photographs for the first time. I didn’t know what and how to shoot. But I had images in my mind. Which I tried to replicate. I did that and ran out of films. A young photographer on the set lent me two rolls to shoot. That was in black and white. It was a large unit. Then the directorial assistants would tell me to help them out with odd jobs… ‘ei babu, okhan theke oita niye aay toh (chap, please bring that thing from there)’. I started running around and doing the odd jobs. In the next four-five days, I became integrated into the unit. Basically, as an errand boy. I quite liked doing what I was doing.

'Portrait': Kunal Sen
'Portrait': Kunal Sen

In the meantime, my father finished shoot and was about to leave. The assistants got together and went up to my father and requested him to let me stay. By that time, I was in college at Saint Xavier’s. So, I stayed on, and slowly became an errand boy on Goutam Ghose’s unit. And I realized that this was where I wanted to be in the years to come. I applied for a unit member card. I was still in college.

'Mumbai Diaries': Khar
'Mumbai Diaries': Khar

Then one day, Goutam da said, “we are doing a film on Bismillah” I was elated. I had my final exams to finish. I went to take the exams with a packed bag and a couple of days later, reached Varanasi by train. It was an experience. I had a little money with which I bought rolls. It came out nice. Many years later, I think the year before last, Pratikshan (the renowned publishing house) came out with a book. They asked me for images of Bismillah Khan for that particular film.

'Mumbai Diaries': Nana Patekar
'Mumbai Diaries': Nana Patekar

By then, I had also moved out of Goutam da’s unit and trying my hand at advertising and filmmaking. And eventually, became an ad filmmaker. I was working simultaneously from Mumbai and Kolkata. So, you see, my interest in photography started from ‘Antarjali Yatra.’ I realized that I was not a bad photographer. I turned out to be a filmmaker who was also a photographer. And remained a photographer ever since. I have even had shows in London and north America. About two years back, I was interviewing Goutam da for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It was then that he told me about his Indo-Italian project. And asked me to work with him again, this time not as an assistant, but as an associate. That’s how I got to work with him all over again, after so many years.

'Mumbai Diaries': Huma Qureshi
'Mumbai Diaries': Huma Qureshi

SpaceInk: What’s your most memorable experience?

Sanjeet: I have no memorable experience as such. I don’t get into the theoretics of photography. I just shoot what I like. And most of the time it turns out to be good.

SpaceInk: What actually captures your attention?

Sanjeet: Nothing and everything capture my attention. I go to a place, I pick up my camera and I know where to stand and what and how to shoot. If, after a shot, I think it can be improved, I do that all over again.

SpaceInk: So, you are an instinctive photographer?

Sanjeet: Yes, absolutely.

'Charak': Kolkata
'Charak': Kolkata

SpaceInk: Who are your influences?

Sanjeet: I have a lot of influences. The easiest name that photographers take in India is that of Henry Cartier-Bresson. I have a photograph of my father clicked and signed by Bresson, which I keep in my bedroom. That is the only photograph I have of my father. In fact, it’s a copy of the original, which is kept in the vault. So, Bresson is, of course, an inspiration.

 

SpaceInk: What do you think of Raghu Rai?

Sanjeet: I have never met him. I have books on him signed by the man himself. I think very highly of him.

 

SpaceInk: Why is that?

Sanjeet: I just love his work. The other person whose work I was stupid enough not to admire then is Raghuvir Singh. Raghuvir had asked me to accompany him to shoot the Grand Trunk Road. I didn’t take it up, which I regret now. I was in college then. I mean, I always liked Raghuvir but never admired him. Now, as I am getting older, I realise what a stupid man I was not to have acknowledged Raghuvir as an important and significant photographer in India.

'Charak': Kolkata
'Charak': Kolkata

SpaceInk: What’s your favourite subject?

Sanjeet: I don’t have a favourite subject as such. Like ‘charak’ in Kolkata – I shot over a period of six years. After years of shooting ‘charak’, I was going through my photographs and wondered, “What the heck, it doesn’t even say where I am! How do you know this is Kolkata?” So, the next time I shot the ‘charak’ from a distance, capturing it against the Kolkata skyline. I spoke to Jawhar Sircar, who was then holding office at the Information Ministry, to write a few things about ‘charak’ to accompany the photos. This was for people outside Kolkata and non-Bengalis, who would never know what a ‘charak’ is.

'Portrait': Aparna Sen
'Portrait': Aparna Sen

SpaceInk: I was going through your work. You haven’t shot abstracts… like the themes of ‘Alienation’ or ‘Communication’ as subjects, for example. Why is that?

Sanjeet: I am a very traditional, middle-class person. I only shoot things that I am attracted to. So, if I want, I could probably take 10 images randomly and form a new category and name it like you said, ‘Communication’. Because a lot of my portraits are of people sitting or standing alone. But I don’t see it that way. I see it as it is. I don’t want to define it. Only one thing that I wanted to define in a small way, is ‘People and Books’. Because I myself have been surrounded by books for the longest time that I can remember. And because over the last 50 years, I am seeing less and less of books in people’s spaces. So, I want to capture it.

'People and Books': Kalyan Roy
'People and Books': Kalyan Roy

SpaceInk: Who is Kalyani?

Sanjeet (smiles): She is my childhood girl-friend. I mean, a friend who is a girl. She lives in Delhi. She is the only one (the other being Kalyan Roy) to have never questioned me anything whenever I shot them. Why do you ask?

SpaceInk: Because there is no surname to her. Among your very formal captions, hers is the very informal one… So, what are your current projects?

'Portrait': Kalyani
'Portrait': Kalyani

Sanjeet: Nothing as such. I want to add more people to the category, ‘People and Books.’

All Images: Artiste Sanjeet Chowdhury

A journalist.

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