« August, 1943. Night is falling on Calcutta, silencing its flocks of ravens, but wakening another kind of life – a feverish, hidden one : in the Maidan, that open space at the city’s heart, there are shadows waiting. »
My uncle, Thaï Doan na Champassak, published Ancestral Voices by Collins – London in 1956 and began his autobiography with this sentence. Mobilised in Algiers during the Second World War, he was sent to China as a trained parachutist in charge of a secret mission destined for clandestine entry into Indochina, then occupied by the Japanese. This extraordinary story has its beginnings in Calcutta, the starting point for his mission to Chungking. In the first chapter he gives a vivid description of the ex-capital of British India just four years before independence. Having travelled frequently to India since 1996 it never occurred to me that Kolkata (formerly the anglicised name Calcutta) would inspire me to produce a body of work focused on its street life and I owe it to my uncle for giving me that desire. In fact it is in the streets of Kolkata that I find the most absolute representation of Indian reality. It is also the only city which holds such an intense concentration of extremes; quiet and loud, rich and poor, clean and dirty, modern and old, beautiful and ugly, past and present. This continuous duality has become my leitmotiv and is the reason I deliberately chose to focus on its street life in order to best represent the chaos of this huge megalopolis of over fifteen million inhabitants.
Limited edition of 500 copies, numbered and signed.
152 pages, 22x30cm
publication date: November 2014
By Brad Feuerhelm, ASX, April 2015
The perfect memory was watching your family crumpled up and burning on a ghat, the vultures swarming to the feast of your children. We exist in this sinkhole of economic disparity, careening along needles and rocks, the disease creeping through the cracks on the soles of our feet. Excrement making a playful gesture as it pushes through the spaces between our toes. This is Calcutta…
Here, everything is possible…the gloom of night, the burning sun of the day. It reminds one of what Paul Bowles found in Morocco, a new slave trade…an oriental jiffy pop bag where each kernel of corn pops and expands under the heat of consumer debris and dirty disease ridden sex. And my foreskin is dry from watching too many disaster clips on YouTube and the same sinkhole of emotions I once felt for people splinter into fragments of disassociative light. I calmly unclench my hand and think further about its actions real and imagined that have I built in my nightmares. We are all one down here.
Calcutta, its gas chambers and towers of silence, clawed at with broken fingers and bad examples of life on the periphery. This wretched Babylon accelerates its menacing approach bearing down on its inhabitants with a black wall of shit thick water vapors heating the breath in our nostrils. Its abhorrent debris retreat into a small miasmatic kaleidoscope of broken buildings and enfeebled citizens…
Only those on elevated land can clean the dirt from their nails assuming a plight of wreckage invaded by a sea of flame…relentless journeys, swathes of land no longer cushioning the blow of globalized pummeling on their chests. Here the wonders of the natural world left to perish amongst the packaging and abandoned streetcars.
Calcutta, a city of the fallout, where monkeys peer menacingly from the shoulders of men in tattered rags. Where the entrails of blood red atrocities run down the pavement and mingle playfully with flies and their maggot progeny. That same monkey that eyeballed us from shoulder to ghat, intensely staring back as if to question how the human animal could get it so wrong. A sneer crossing its white teeth as it flings its shit at the faces of children on their way to strip the copper from wiring sent into the streets.
In another part of the city, wireless operations and telecoms monstrosities whip crack the hum of electricity passing through the wires of a “global” network. This sinkhole of a festering wound once called a city. A people once proud left in shame of their caste. Life. Proud life. Wishful inorganic fortitude and a cough turning into the sinkhole of our lungs. Cracked lips and whispers of defeat.
Tiane Doan Na Champassak. Calcutta. He, marauder of the flame. An observation of a prolapsed city. A reminder of places I never wish to visit on my way to floating down the Ganges on a burning raft only to sink into a river of shit.