The sweeping glass facade of the University of Chicago Center in Connaught Place does not encourage one to stop and stare into the plush lobby. But, if an intrepid pedestrian does loiter, he or she might be rewarded — with a glimpse of two massive boxes, whose sides are covered with text and photographs. Made up of four panels each, the boxes form a show titled “Following the Box”, which opened this month. The size of the “art exhibition” — organised by the American Embassy and USIEF— does no justice to the possibility of its subject.
The story of “Following the Box” begins in 1988 when an American couple picked up a shoebox at an estate sale in Chicago and found it stuffed with old photographs and negatives. What happened next is worthy of a road movie. Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral saw that there were 130 photographs and negatives, taken in 1945, with captions such as “Biliji Temple” and “Indian Girl with Jug”. When the couple started to trace unknown places and the rural people, it became an obsessive adventure that still continues.
Teller and Zbiral decided to “follow the box” — it brought them half-way across the world, to India — to identify the elements in the photographs. They relied on scholars, students, organisations, books, online resources and sheer luck. About one discovery, the text reads, “After a series of near misses, they found an exact match to the image simply marked ‘Kali Temple’. It was in Kharagpur.” In another case, a photograph showed a girl sitting in front of a blurry temple. Teller and Zbiral searched online and identified this to be the Balaji temple in Kharagpur in West Bengal. When they visited the temple and began comparing the newly painted structure with the one in the photo, “a young man appeared. He pointed a photo marked ‘Old Priest Biliji’ and said, ‘That’s my great-grandfather’”.
Unravelling the mystery opened another chapter of history — of American military presence in India during the second World War and of the Indians, who served on the American bases and worked on airfields, among others. The photographer was most likely an American GI, who was based in Kharagpur.
A previous show of “Following the Box” was held in Kolkata and was a larger affair, with several artists engaging with the photographs. Delhi’s seems like a teaser. The identity of the photographer is still unknown. His story, however, needs a bigger box.
The exhibition is at University of Chicago Center, Connaught Place, till April 30.