Across the Threshold: Laura McPhee’s Calcutta


One of the ubiquitous features of Calcutta’s architecture — visible here and there in Laura McPhee’s ravishing new book — are the French windows and plantation-style shutters on older buildings. Usually the shutters are closed to keep out the heat, but the slats can be parted to let the light in or to provide a discreet view outside. “The street would flood in through the crack, without any part of you seeping out,” Amit Chaudhuri recalls in his memoir of Calcutta. “The windows were foreign, and yet part of my conception of Bengaliness,” he adds, “and they possibly conveyed what I felt about Calcutta intuitively: that, here, home and elsewhere were enmeshed intimately.” 1

This is a passage that might have served McPhee nicely as an epigraph to The Home and the World: A View of Calcutta. 2 Her photographs explore the beguiling fabric of Calcutta, its layering of colonial, native, immigrant, and global textures. Proud but largely neglected 19th-century buildings figure prominently in her book, not from a sense of colonial nostalgia but because these buildings are for us and for Calcuttans themselves the disappearing threshold to historicity. The city has turned its back on these ornate establishments as on something foreign, and would be razing them at an even faster rate if questions of ownership and legality were not so opaque. A striking example is a once-grand edifice, dating from 1910, on Surendra Nath Banerjee Road, that I happened to visit earlier this year. Much of the rear of the building has collapsed, but its neoclassical façade still rises from the street, brickwork showing through broken plaster and shutters closed upon its French windows. Two Corinthian columns support a lintel on which the word “Photographers” (minus a letter or two) is affixed. This is the home of Bourne & Shepherd, founded in 1863 and the oldest continuously operated photography business in India. The company still sells point-and-shoot cameras and memory cards from a tiny shop on the ground floor.

Laura McPhee uses an 8×10 mahogany camera of a design that would have been standard in Bourne & Shepherd’s heyday. It resembles the shutters of Calcutta’s buildings in the sense that it is a device for looking — heavy, antiquated, and obdurately manual. But more than that, as the novelist Amitav Ghosh writes in the book’s preface, “The shutter of Laura’s Deardorff camera transfigures [Calcutta’s] landscape of disjunctions, exclusions, and contrasts. I use the word shutter advisedly here, for I do believe that the originality of Laura’s work has much to do with the thinking that goes into the operation of this part of the camera.” Ghosh has in mind here a subset of McPhee’s images, the portraits that punctuate her sequence of architectural and other urban views. McPhee made all but one of the book’s portraits at the same spot, by a garden gate outside her house in Calcutta, where the driveway meets the street, posting herself there in the morning and inviting passersby to have their picture taken. Her shutter thus became not just a threshold between the flux of life and the arrested moment, but between home and the street, estrangement and collaboration.

The art historian Romita Ray unpacks this theme of thresholds in a rich essay accompanying the photographs. Part of her focus is on the boundary between the secular and the sacred, which McPhee reveals most powerfully in Fists of the Goddess Kali, the photograph reproduced on the book’s jacket. As Ray reads it, the image fuses multiple layers — those of devotional iconography (Kali’s fists, a photograph of a Hindu guru), of commercially and traditionally produced materials, and even of kitsch (a sticker depicting Shiva). But this photograph is in some ways atypical of McPhee’s work in this book. Although she has a discerning eye for these kinds of miniature tableaux, more often her pictures explore spaces on a larger scale —the interiors of mosques and temples, buildings decorated for the annual Durga Puja festival, markets and street corners. The tone of the book is set by the numerous photographs of historic mansions (rajbari) of North Calcutta, magnificent and now often dilapidated homes built by the Bengali elite in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Outwardly, these mansions face the world with ostentatiously European facades. Within, they are an eclectic mix of neoclassical and Mughal styles. These were the homes of a Bengali mercantile class that flourished at the uneasy boundaries of empire, the “native” ally of the British but also a fertile source of nascent nationalism and the Bengali Renaissance.

Crumbling from neglect and the corrosive air of modern Calcutta, the rajbari continue a diminished life, housing descendants of those who built them, or their tenants, or, occasionally, a school or police station. But McPhee is drawn less to signs of neglect than to evidence of vestigial elegance —rooms where the marble floors gleam, the Victorian furniture is lovingly used, beds are carefully made, and patriarchs still gaze meaningfully from the walls. Some of these spaces seem deeply private, but in other photographs McPhee develops her theme of home and world interpenetrating. Bicycles, for example, move between the two, appearing not only in one busy, elevated street view, but also in a portrait she makes at the gate of her own home, in a view within the old covered New Market, and in the interior courtyard of Putul Bari (Dolls’ House), beneath a profusion of electrical wires and architectural styles. In one especially strong photograph, McPhee shows a modern apartment house with a window grille echoed almost precisely by decorative netting strung over a car. The building and the car are both white, but the scene is punctured by discrete bursts of orange: a flowerpot atop the car, a woman’s sari inside the window, the reflection of a low sun in the background, and a garland of flowers at the threshold of the building’s entrance.

McPhee’s Calcutta is poised at the threshold of loss and resilience.

In 2001, Calcutta was officially renamed Kolkata. It has bought into India’s globalizing ambitions and is on a path of rapid development, which is dramatically visible to anyone traveling past the satellite cities that stretch between its massive new airport terminal and central Kolkata. Suggestions of this change are visible here and there in McPhee’s photographs, most poignantly in her portrait of an ice-cream vendor decked out in the colors of Kwality Wall’s (a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever). Romita Roy uses her essay to tease out the elements of contemporaneity in the pictures. But by and large, McPhee averts her camera from obvious signs of Kolkata’s current strains and contradictions. For example, it is striking in a body of work so attentive to the city’s expressive surfaces that there is no glimpse of the political graffiti so prevalent in the years McPhee worked there. In this vein, the 19th-century Bengali elite’s ghostly presence in North Calcutta suggests a puzzle. The documentary photographer Peter Bialobrzeski, who also worked among the rajbari of North Calcutta, wondered “How was it possible for people to amass such great wealth in such a short time — and for it to slip through their descendants’ fingers so quickly?” 3 McPhee’s book poses the same question more obliquely.

Amit Chaudhuri has argued that for many years Calcutta’s rich cultural life defined a kind of modernity in which even failure and dereliction were transformed into something vital. That ended, he says, in the 1980s, as West Bengal became economically and culturally marginalized under a communist government. “Without the transformative effect of the imagination,” Chaudhuri writes, “decay is just decay, disrepair plain disrepair.” 4 McPhee’s photographs could be mistaken as an elegy for a bygone Calcutta that still haunts only a few pockets of the city and the hidden recesses of its “heritage” buildings. Instead, I think her images show a transformation still at work in the city, and effect a transformation of their own. Her Calcutta is poised at the threshold of loss and resilience. In the words of an elderly stranger whom McPhee quotes in her acknowledgments, “Calcutta, you love it with the brink of your heart.”

  1. Amit Chaudhuri, Calcutta: Two Years in the City (London, Union Books, 2013), 10.
  2. McPhee chooses another passage from Chaudhuri’s excellent and highly quotable book as an epigraph for one of the book’s sections: “Calcutta is an imaginary city; it’s in that realm that it’s most visible and detailed and compelling.”
  3. Kolkata Heritage Photo Project (Peter Bialobrzeski, ed.), Calcutta: Chitpur Road Neighborhoods (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2008). A collaborative photographic survey of North Calcutta by Bialobrzeski and his students from the University of Arts, in Bremen, this book makes an interesting contrast to McPhee’s. Working with 4×5-inch cameras and color film, Bialobrzeski’s team documented some of the same buildings and interiors shown in McPhee’s more personal book.
  4. Chaudhuri, Calcutta, 81.
Alan Thomas and Laura McPhee, “Across the Threshold: Laura McPhee’s Calcutta,” Places Journal, December 2014. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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