The World of Ramjan Ostagar: The Common Man of Old Calcutta is a chapter written by Sumanta Banerjee from the book ‘Calcutta: The Living City’ (Oxford University Press), dedicated to the anonymity of Calcutta’s common man in the 19th century. The author speaks of how all the history of the period is centered around the elite minority and the stories of the vast majority, the common man, are largely lost in time.
The author introduces the imaginary ‘Ramjan Ostagar’ as a representative of the common man – he is a tailor but he epitomizes the artisan, the hawker, the servant, and the coolie, the cobbler and the tailor, the street entertainer and the prostitute. Through his eyes, the author takes us into the dark alleyways of Calcutta’s colonial past and the structure of the society, that ignored the very pillars it stood on.
While going through the chapter, I found stark similarities with the society I was born into, two centuries down the line. As I went through the historical instances and conclusions, I could find almost every single aspect around me. The read made me question the term ‘progressive’ that we have conveniently attached to our social structure. It seemed that society was actually frozen in time, and was working in the same pattern that neglects the toil keeping the wheels rolling. The common man of the 21st century is still as anonymous as he was in the 19th century colonial era and the hierarchy of bhadralok, khansama and labourer is still very much the same with perhaps changed names and altered apparent dispositions.
This prompted me to translate my understandings into the visual medium and I started working on a personal project which aims to present the modern society side by side with the world of Ramjan Ostagar, through scenes and frozen moments of modern-day Calcutta.
I shortlisted portions/stanzas from the piece, and tried to find true, candid moments in Kolkata that supported my claim. I decided to base this entirely on real moments, as staged photographs perhaps kill the very notion of presenting the natural flow of the social ways, which forms the basis of the project.
At its heart, the project seeks to question progress at the societal level.
Have we, as a society, been able to overcome our colonial past towards setting the right priorities? Have we, with so much of media and communication, been able to ensure that the majority, the common man trying to feed his family, does not remain anonymous in time?
Does the majority actually have a voice loud enough to be heard in history?
Or, are we still living in the 19th century Calcutta, a divided city of sections with their own agendas, feeding on the toil of those who aren’t allowed a say? I faced these questions as I read. I asked these questions when I photographed. I used composite images and juxtapositions to press my case and communicate through a layered narrative.
The description to each of the photographs is a direct quote from the said chapter and as is always the nature of art, all of it is open to interpretation.
Upayan Chatterjee is an engineering student who spends his time reading and learning all that he can, and sometimes tries to communicate his interests through images. His interests lie in India’s lost wildlife spaces and their stories.