Almost 70 years ago, towards the end of World War II, a US soldier stationed in rural West Bengal grabbed his camera and sped away in his jeep to photograph the countryside. A shoebox, full of 127 prints of his remarkable images shot in 1945, was later discovered by Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral during an estate sale in Chicago. Years later, the American photographer-artist couple set on a long journey to unravel the details of this mysterious photographer. It has led to an exhibition where 12 artists from Kolkata have lent their interpretations to the “Following the Box” project.
On display at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Delhi, is graphic designer Sunandini Banerjee’s untitled digital collage on paper, where the American photographer’s black-and-white image of a bunch of priestly students seated at the entrance of a temple, rests in the company of a colourful image of Krishna, playing his flute in the verandah. As war plane motifs hover in the sky, a Kalighat-inspired image of Durga slaying the demon Mahishasura beside the scene, acts as a metaphor. Teller, who has curated the exhibition with his wife, says, “This exhibition is a visual storytelling, a mystery tale of old photographs and new artistic interpretations. It is a celebration of the universal power of photography to elicit memory and spark conversations.”
Teller’s multimedia installation The Ruined Temple takes off from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem by the same name. The photograph, taken by the soldier of the dilapidated ruins of an old temple in West Bengal, is printed on cloth, and shows trees mushrooming from a crumbling roof. It curtains a dark space where lines of Tagore’s poem, from Gitanjali, confronts visitors. In a video, the interiors of the temple is shown with a priest performing rituals.
Renowned patua scroll artist Swarna Chitrakar re-tells few tales from the 127 photographs, with her hand painted scroll, titled Finding Pictures in a Box is a Surprising Story!. She has repainted temple scenes, and that of vendors selling vegetables, using the colourful traditional art form.
A handcrafted book, using handmade paper, ink and watercolour, depicts how artist Amritah Sen was instantly reminded of her family album, when she encountered the box of unidentified photographs. Choosing 10 portraits and group photographs from the box, she has pasted 10 similar snapshots from her family album from 1940s beside them. The sepia-toned photograph of her father seated next to her infant aunt in their childhood, lies beside a photograph of a young boy holding a toddler in his arms. It elicits goosebumps, like many other startling pictures in the artist’s handbook, when one spots resemblances in the frames.
The exhibition is on till January 31