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IU Communications

Steve Raymer
IU School of Journalism

Last modified: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

IU journalism professor's book presents daily life in Calcutta beyond its well-known poverty

Nov. 14, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It's easy to dismiss the Eastern Indian city of Calcutta as "a city of such economic and social chaos that it has become a byword for unspeakable poverty," as Indiana University professor Steve Raymer puts it.

Raymer, Steve

The cover of "Redeeming Calcutta," which Raymer spent five years working on.

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"To much of the world, Calcutta remains a clichéd black hole -- a city where humanitarians like Mother Teresa, the Nobel laureate, and thousands more like her have toiled on behalf of the poor, a righteous story made picture-perfect for journalists," said Raymer, a professor in the IU School of Journalism and author of the new book, "Redeeming Calcutta: A Portrait of India's Imperial Capital" (Oxford University Press).

"At first glance, Calcutta fulfilled all of my expectations for a Third World capital gone horribly wrong," he added. "It was an unsettling picture, though, I would learn over the course of several years, inaccurate."

Raymer's five-year photographic project, as presented in his 210-page book, also depicts this city of 15 million as a cultural, literary and intellectual center. It was the home of Rabindranath Tagore, the poet who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

Calcutta, now officially renamed Kolkata, is the capital of the state of West Bengal and is the primary commercial, cultural and educational center of Eastern India. It is home to the nation's oldest operating port, but lags behind the rest of India in terms of industrial development and connections to the global economy.

While Raymer previously had traveled extensively throughout South Asia for previous books and as a photographer for National Geographic magazine, he had never visited Calcutta before undertaking his documentary. His earlier books, "Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora," "Living Faith: Inside the Muslim World of Southeast Asia" and "Land of the Ascending Dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam," also focused on life in the region.

Raymer, Steve

Hindu faithful perform purification rituals at Armenian Ghat, a principal landing or entryway along the Hooghly River, one of the city's major transportation arteries and a vital branch of the sacred Ganges.

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The book includes a forward by Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago.

A native of Calcutta and one of the world's eminent South Asian scholars, Chakrabarty wrote, "Raymer's photos also re-introduce me to Calcutta, as if to a long-lost friend, and I begin to see the city afresh and to see certain things differently. ... Raymer presents a Calcutta caught up, however feebly, in the changes that have produced a more connected world."

The book is being released this month in India and Great Britain and in the United States later this year.

Raymer's photographs depict life at every socioeconomic level in Calcutta, from migrant workers turning raw jute into bolts of fiber, to some of the city's 6,000 licensed rickshaw-drivers who earn less than $5 a day, to members of the legal community and tasters at the largest tea auctioneer in the world.

His pictures also present the decrepit Victorian-era buildings leftover from the time when Calcutta was capital of British India and then called the "second city of the empire." He contrasts them with sprawling modern high-rises in Satellite Town and with the 269-foot-high Howrah Bridge that carries more than 100,000 vehicles and at least a half-million pedestrians daily across the Hooghly River, a branch of the sacred Ganges River.

Among the places where Raymer photographed was Mother Teresa's Home for Sick and Dying Destitutes, a hospice where medical students from the European Union fulfill requirements to care for the poor before receiving their medical degrees. He also visited the Missionaries of Charity, which she established in 1950, as well as a variety of temples, mosques and churches.

"If there is one thing that distinguishes my book from all the others and by photographers who go there, it is that I accept that there is poverty and I tried not to turn away from it," he said. "But I tried to find what else there is in Calcutta."

In addition to his photography, Raymer also penned a 12,800-word essay about Calcutta's history that is accompanied by historic images from the Library of Congress, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum and other sources.

Raymer's initial purpose for the project was to photograph the city's historic structures, but the restoration of the city became the book's theme. As others tell the story of India's emergence on the world scene and developments in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, no one's telling Calcutta's tale.

"Many Calcuttans really see themselves as a cut above the rest of India," he said. "There is a kind of elitism and a snobbery that it still is the cultural capital. … This is the only city in Asia, let alone India, that can claim five Nobel Prize winners."

Raymer, Steve

The Howrah Bridge carries more than 100,000 vehicles and at least a half-million pedestrians across the Hooghly River daily from the neighboring city of Howrah. The iconic structure is one of the world's longest and tallest cantilever bridges.

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It is the home to more than 200 theatrical troupes. Poetry readings take place regularly. It is home to the largest annual bookfair in the nation.

Raymer also was in Calcutta during a historic time. Eastern India historically has leaned sharply toward Marxism, and the local communist government was voted out while he was doing the book. It had been the world's longest-serving democratically elected communist government, ousted after 34 years in power.

"I covered the end of the Soviet Union, so I should be an expert on the end of communist regimes," Raymer said. "People had the same pent-up hope for better governance and less corruption, but the last several times I've been back, the people have been pretty disappointed by what replaced the communist rule. ... They're unhappy that they haven't seen a change for the better."

Many of Calcutta's poor are refugees from East Bengal, now Bangladesh, who have relied on the Communist Party of India for ration cards that give them subsidized rice and cooking oil and all-important proof of Indian citizenship. The quid pro quo has been a loyal block of voters who have supported the communists and whose homes are painted with the familiar hammer and sickle.

In addition to teaching photojournalism, media ethics and international newsgathering in the IU School of Journalism, Raymer also is on the faculty of IU's Russian and East European Institute and its India Studies Program. Before coming to IU in 1995, Raymer directed the National Geographic Society News Service and was a National Geographic magazine staff photographer, working in some 90 countries.

He has received a citation for excellence in foreign reporting from the Overseas Press Club of America and in 1976 was named the magazine photographer of the year by the National Press Photographers Association.