Calcutta – Frozen in Time and Frame

An exhibition of a treasure of photographs showing Calcutta and its neighbourhoods from studios of colonial India is on at the Victoria Memorial Hall

Government Place East with Great Eastern Hotel in the distance


Raghu Rai browsing through the exhibition
Howrah Station
Government House, now Governor’s House
Pontoon Bridge

Calcutta in late 19th and early 20th century was a reality far from the present. Today, to any Calcuttan, it will seem like a figment of imagination that does not stand close to what we see and experience of the city.  It is indeed frozen in time and only for some great photographers and studios of the time that we still learn about the order, discipline and beauty of the city at that time. Bourne and Shepherd, the largest commercial studio in colonial India and Johnston and Hoffman, the second largest, together captured priceless vignettes of the city from time to time, creating a treasure of photographs of Calcutta of the time. Victoria Memorial Hall had bought the prints from these studios from time to time and created a collection of photographs, which are at present on display at the hall till September 1. The exhibition was inaugurated on July 30 by veteran photographer Raghu Rai.

The 96 photographs on display are actually digital representations of gelatin silver photographic prints. Studios in the late 19th century called themselves ‘artists and photographers’ because aesthetics was an important component of photography and much of a studio’s success depended on its aesthetic representations. Indeed, most of the prints on display are not only aesthetically attractive but also historically valuable.

“Photography as a practice began in Calcutta in 1840, just a few months after the technology was patented in England and France in 1839,” said Ranu Roychoudhuri, a historian of photography and art and curator of the exhibition.

Both sahibs and Indians practiced photography as a trade and hobby and soon studios and camera clubs were established that exchanged photographers, ideas and styles. “However, photography remained the forte of the elite because it was an expensive hobby. Between these exclusive elite groups, they created a vast collection of photographs of myriad formats and genres, ranging from carte-de-visite and cabinet card portraits to cityscapes,” said Roychoudhuri.

Frozen in Time showcases pictures of iconic structures of the city some of which still exist but have transformed beyond recognition and others that are now long lost memories. The exhibition includes images of the British-dominated commercial and administrative hub along with the Indian- inhabited neighbourhoods like Burrabazar and Chitpore.

For those who are curios and are interested in a piece of history of the once British-Indian capital, this exhibition will both your eyes and mouth wide open.