By the late nineteenth century, Calcutta, the power capital of the British witnessed a rapid transformation as a metropolis. With the rise of English education and institutions, industrial expansion and colonial bureaucratic professions, a speedy rural-urban migration took place in the city. Such significant factors of upward social mobility lead to the burgeoning of a new Bengali middle class which initially comprised of upper caste Hindus but soon even lower castes were able to mark their presence in the still evolving new class constellation of a society. According to historian Sumit Sarkar, the Bengali term bhadralok “is way too broad, ranging presumably from the Maharaja of Mymensingh to an East Indian railway clerk”. The term bhadra refers to the gentle and learned code of conduct where as bhadralok refers to the respectable Bengali (middle and upper) class which observes and maintains certain moral and cultural norms. Babumoshai or babu as the term suggests alludes to the city’s male individual who was a dandy, was well read, took great pride in serving the colonial orders, had a fancy towards Anglicised modes of consumption but at the same time critiqued the western mimicry by participating in their traditional rituals and customs. Caught in the flux of colonial modernity and traditional socio-cultural norms, the Bengali babus had many constitutive attributes which created their unique cultural identity. One of many, the poshak or dress was a major decisive factor which marked the manifestation of a certain class association. Initially, the babu’s dress comprised of a fine dhoti with a black border, a white kurta and a piece of braided cloth around the neck. With the turn of the 20th century, the western influence began to take over the fashion styles of the Bengali middle class men. Shirts, pleated trousers, ties, suits accompanied with a small bag became the formal wear of the bureaucratic babus and the white collar people.
Aparna Jayakumar, a contemporary woman photographer, was intrigued with the idea of the quintessential Bengali babu and the continuation of his now passé fashion sense of the 1950s and 1960s. Influenced by Satyajit Ray’s cinema and graphic novels of Sarnath Banerjee, Jayakumar took to the streets of Calcutta to capture the portraits of the still existing stereotype middle-aged babus. As she puts it,
“I roamed the streets of Calcutta looking for these almost fictional characters. While most photographers would shoot around the scenic parts of North Calcutta, at the potters’ colonies and around Howrah bridge, I made my way to the office district of Esplanade (dubbed locally as Esplanet). When I did find these characters, I decided to accost them in the street with my camera and make portraits of them.
The results were amusing: most of them were taken aback to see a young woman take so much interest in them.Some posed happily and went on to make polite conversation with me, even offering me local help and their phone numbers.Some were suspicious of my motives. Some were so embarrassed by the idea of posing before an imposing camera that they were outright rude.
Some complied grudgingly when I told them this was a student project and I would get good grades if I made nice portraits. Bengalis love academia and I knew it would be hard for them to refuse that proposition. And then there were some who would have liked to pose for a picture but they were rushing to catch the tram to India Coffee House to join their babu friends for a chat over a long and meandering coffee.”
In search of Bengali identity via the Bengali babus, the artist-photographer has brought back a forgotten past of a middle class which post-liberalisation has gone through a huge makeover. However, as world class citizens, the current generation of men has substituted the babu’s fashion with fashionable global trends.
Aparna Jayakumar is a photographer based in Mumbai. Her work often concentrates on themes such as migration, clashes of culture, religion, gender and sexuality, social contradictions, and anthropological studies of communities have engaged her the most. She was a student of Art History, Silver Photography and Ancient Greek Literature at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Italy and Greece. Previously, she studied Photography and Film at the Sophia Polytechnic, and Psychology and Sociology at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She cites her greatest artistic influences as Egon Schiele, André Kertész, Raghubir Singh, Woody Allen, Wong Kar-Wai and Iranian cinema.
Jayakumar’s work has been featured in Travel+Leisure, CNN Traveller, CNNgo.com, Verve, The Sunday Guardian, Lonely Planet, Elle, Femina and other publications. She was nominated for the international photography award Prix Pictet in 2009. Her work has been exhibited at the Aegean Center in Paros, Lincoln Center in New York City, Villa Borghese in Rome, Art Bazis in Budapest, Strand Art Room and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai and at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011. She has shot publicity stills for films such as Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Kaminey’, Sooni Taraporevala’s ‘Little Zizou’, and the Harvey Keitel-starrer ‘Gandhi of the Month’.