It was 1995, and the Calcutta summer was just about winding up. Ranjan remembers feeling conscious of the way his t-shirt stuck to his back when he went to answer the door. The ting-tong of the doorbell was almost a respite from the drudgery of a 10-year-old’s afternoon. “He was standing there with a wide grin on his face and a paper plate full of cut fruits. His family had just shifted to our building, he brought us Satyanarayan puja prasad,” says Ranjan, 33 now.
K, who was two years older than him, was to become an inextricable part of Ranjan’s childhood at his Bangur Avenue apartment in east Kolkata. He remembers rushing from school to meet him at a cassette shop under the Sealdah flyover. “We would get mixtapes done of our favourite Bollywood numbers and then exchange our cassettes so we didn’t miss out on any number,” says Ranjan.
But what Ranjan remembers most vividly are the afternoons they spent together on his terrace. “For six years, we shaped ourselves there. There were no secrets between us. I was never in love with him, but there was a connection. I saw him slowly drift away. I wasn’t particularly sad about it. It was all part of growing up. But a part of me still holds on to those afternoons,” he says.
Today, Ranjan is an established theatre and film actor in a steady relationship with another man and K is married to a woman in Mumbai, happily settled. They still bump into each other when K visits, but they might as well be strangers. When photographer Soumya Sankar Bose approached Ranjan to be a part of his project on the “dreams and desires” of LGBTQI people of India, Ranjan decided to narrate his love story, which was not exactly a love story to Bose. “He wanted to capture the essence of those afternoons together,” he says. The result is an intimate image of Ranjan and a model sprawled by a window with a recorder and some cassettes strewn beside them. “I know I took the risk of making this image a little esoteric but I wanted it to tell a story,” says Bose.
For Bose, a Magnum Foundation fellow, that’s a risk he could afford. His ambitious photo project, ‘Full Moon and a Dark Night’, attempts to understand how the sub-conscious processes the experience of persecution. “I wanted to give my collaborators a platform to vent and, if I could, heal,” says Bose. His work will be on as part of a solo show, opening on 17 March, at the Gallery Experimenter in Kolkata. His previous project, ‘Let’s Sing an Old Song’ (2016), focused on forgotten jatra (an indigenous theatre form from Bengal) artistes of Bengal. “Even in that photo project, I wanted my collaborators to tell me about the characters that they have carried with them for years,” says Bose.
‘Full Moon and a Dark Night’ also reveals a photographer who isn’t afraid of being vulnerable. “(It’s) because I knew what it means to be different in an intensely patriarchal society,” says Bose, who was raised in Medinipur, a town roughly 150 kms away from Kolkata. As a boy who didn’t live up to the “toxic standards of masculinity” in a boys’ school — he studied at Midnapore Collegiate School — Bose encountered bullying of various kinds. “I didn’t know how to deal with it, I learned to ignore it. Otherwise, I felt suffocated,” he says.
That thought resonates with his photo of 27-year-old Anjishnu and his partner, Arjun. In a sun-dappled room, Arjun is lying with his head on Anjishnu’s lap. They seem to be sharing an intimate moment, except that Arjun has a gas mask on his face. “The most obvious significance of the mask is to show the kind of suffocating effect patriarchy has on us. But I felt there was something subliminal in the picture too. When I spoke to Soumya about my childhood and the way my effeminacy shaped the perception of people around me, he told me how trapped he felt too,” says Anjishnu.
Bose made a conscious attempt to ensure that his photo project didn’t end up being a stereotypical depiction of the LGBTQI community of India. “More often than not, such photo projects tend to follow a template. It’s like the depiction of sex workers of India. I find them unimaginative and exploitative. It’s almost pornographic in its intention. I wanted the people in my photos to be collaborators and not passive subjects,” says Bose.
Sanghamitra, 25, Bose’s long-time friend, who features in one of the photos of the project with his ex-partner and friend, Sudipta, 26, talks about the creative process like it was an intellectual exercise. “He first asked me what I would like to do. I told him I wanted a photograph that would map my relationship with my friend who I was once dating. When we were in a relationship, she told me that she will always love me and she has kept that promise even if aren’t involved romantically now,” says Sanghamitra.
The dream-like photo has her sprawled in a bathtub with Sudipta sitting beside her on a chair. While Sanghamitra is donning a platinum blonde wig, Sudipta, in a bride-red saree looks like a character from a 1950s Bengali film. “I wanted to look like poison ivy, but that doesn’t come across,” says Sanghamitra. Not all dreams come true.