The British Empire Library

Calcutta 1940-1970 in the photographs of Jayant Patel

by Soumitra Das

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This unique collection of black and white photographs of Calcutta between 1940 and 1970, together with accompanying text, provides the reader with evocative images of an extraordinary period and fascinating new historical facts and anecdotes. The book owes its existence to the vision and dedication of Lila Patel, the wife of the photographer, Jayant Patel. Lila not only shared her husband's experiences for fifty years, but also kept and documented all his photographs and ensured that a lasting record of his work and achievements now exist in the pages of this book. She dedicates the book to his memory and says that his 'abiding love of Calcutta and unfailing passion for photography encouraged me to put together this book'. She illustrates this very clearly in her story of how excited Jayant became at the possibility of capturing a photograph of a dramatic lightning storm over the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul's Cathedral and the Nehru Children's Museum in 1969, setting up his camera to record the moment whilst they were away at a party.

Jayant's love of Calcutta is clearly evident in his images of the city's streets and waterways, both of its well-known elegant buildings and skylines, and of its everyday bustle. He often seems to take photographs from unusual angles, so one is either looking down at a street scene from a window (or the top deck of a moving double decker bus!), or up at a rickshaw or boat as it comes towards you. There is an excellent foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi which explains how Jayant saw his photographs not only as art, but as a way of recording history in a critical time for India that included the end of World War II, the Bengal Famine, the Partition of India and the birth of a new independent India. As the owner of the renowned Bombay Photos Stores on Park Street, and also the official photographer for Government House (renamed Raj Bhavan after Independence) and the British and American military, Jayant was in a unique position to record many key moments and events.

The photographs are enhanced not only by their captions, but by the excellent preceding text by Soumitra Das, who paints his own picture of the background of each image, placing it in an historical and emotional context. Das gives a fascinating and readable history of Calcutta as a city, and of Jayant Patel as a gifted photographer and family man. It seems Jayant's camera was almost a permanent extension of his body. His son recalls that he took it everywhere with him, taking photographs of everything and everyone he saw. Das goes on to gives fascinating details of the politics behind many of Jayant's photographs, especially those involving the important figures of Partition and India's Independence, such as Nehru, Gandhi and Jinnah. He also shines a light on less well known political interventions of prominent local families such as the Birla family - who hosted Gandhi when he came to Calcutta with a charkha and a goat. The Birlas also invited the Chinese military and political leader. General Chiang Kai- Shek, and his beautiful, influential, wife, to try to mediate with Nehru about the non-co-operation movement launched by the Indian freedom fighters. Jayant's photographs of the rows of Birla ladies in their saris and with their heads covered, surrounding the Chinese couple and Gandhi in his traditional dhoti, fascinate me.

Das's anecdotes also include less serious tales of the popular Calcutta venues such as the mansion of the Jewish tycoon David Ezra on Kyd Street, which opened its doors for tea and cakes to all branches of the Armed Forces. Das finishes with a first-hand account of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961, when he stood as a boy with the crowds by the statue of the Unknown Soldier on the Maidan, cheering as the Queen drove past, standing in the back of an open car. Jayant's final photographs feature the Queen's enduring love of horse-racing as she beams whilst presenting the frophy to the winner of the coveted Queen's Cup at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club races.

British Empire Book
Soumitra Das
First Published
Niyogi Books
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2018 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe