Twenty years ago, when I visited Calcutta for the first time, the atmosphere I felt was hauntingly familiar. Modelled on London, – where I lived at the time – enough remained of the Empire’s second city to be living testimony to the colonial era. My perception was of a city held captive by its 19th century heyday, an echo of a London now long gone. The dominance of the past is perhaps due in part to the sharp contrast in fortunes that followed years of political upheaval. A post independence attempt to erase the visible legacy of colonial rule by demolishing selected buildings proved short lived, and has more recently been countered by a movement to restore some elements of the city’s heritage. Just as Calcutta’s cosmopolitan origins marked a turning point in the evelopment of Indian society, so now a paradox emerges as the memory of an imperial past clashes with the emergence of India as a self-confident global power.
In the manner of previous empires, the British planned the cities of Calcutta and Bombay to symbolise their power, and disseminate their value system. As I knew little in detail about the consequences of this important chapter in my own country’s history, an opportunity presented itself to investigate before the inevitable process of modernisation erased the traces of the past. Returning to India on a yearly basis since 2003, I had decided to photograph the interiors of the mostly administrative buildings that still dominate central Kolkata and Mumbai. I wanted to glimpse behind the imposing façades and study at first hand the workings of the machine – the remnants of a British installed bureaucracy. An exhibition in Calcutta two years ago of some of these images led to an invitation by Soumitra Das, Arts Editor with the Telegraph newspaper, to collaborate on “Red Square” – a book project of text and images charting the fulcrum of colonial power in India, the area at the heart of old Calcutta where British trade was first established back in 1686. As a consequence, the scope of my project expanded, and a picture started to emerge of a complex and fascinating story.