Alakananda Nag, Armenians of Calcutta

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2021 (artist’s website here, book linked off the home page). Hardcover (10×15 cm), 127 pages, with 34 color and black and white photographs. Includes texts and captions by the artist. Design by Asmita Parelkar and the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Indian photographer Alakananda Nag has spent the last decade working on a project that examines the Armenian community of Calcutta (Nag was born and raised in the city, and like many locals, continues to call it Calcutta even after the official name change to Calcutta in 2001). Records show that Armenian merchants started coming to India as early as the 11th century, and by the time the first ships of the British East India Company docked in Gujarat in 1608, Armenians had already made inroads into every quarter powerful in the region. Armenians arrived in Bengal to escape the organized persecution of their ethnic group under the Ottoman Empire, and the community flourished in Calcutta, their presence shaping the city as it is known today.

Nag’s suggestion that Armenians were the founders of Calcutta is somewhat controversial, and as she explains, such thinking is “not widely known or accepted”. She researched, photographed and collected previously unknown and unpublished materials unique to the Armenian community of Calcutta and the city they helped build, and the results of her extensive research were compiled into a photo book that she was able to self-publish. Title Calcutta Armeniansthe book traces the forgotten life of the Armenian community who lived and shaped an Indian city that today barely remembers them.

Calcutta Armenians is a relatively small, intimate and elegant photo book. It has a red cloth cover. The question answered by the book, “Are the Armenians after all the founders of Calcutta?” takes up the cover and appears embossed in a slightly lighter color, making it almost invisible. The visual flow is built from Nag’s photographs and rare archival documents, and is guided by the artist’s writing. “Unlike the many other groups of people who have come to the city, stayed there and made it their own, most don’t see, hear or know much about the current life of Armenians here.”

Nag began photographing contemporary Armenians in early 2010, and at that time did not know much about their history. She spent many Sundays at church services or talking with people at the Sir Catchick Paul Chater Home for the Aged. Nag worked around the challenge of doing this work from absence – people, information and research material – reconstructing a reality whose memory is fractured at best. His interaction with these people and various allusions shape the book. In her work, she aims “to unravel a history that has ceased to be part of public memory, discourse and visual culture”.

The Armenian presence in Calcutta is mainly visible through its architecture. The book begins with an image of “Armenian Street”, an area where Calcutta’s first Armenians settled. In a photograph we see a sign for a shop in the street, written in both English and Armenian. Burra Bazar, a few blocks away, is another of the city’s liveliest areas, and its energy and lively life are captured in black and white photographs. One of the most important places in Nag is the Holy Armenian Church of Nazareth, a beautiful, pristine white building and the oldest church in Calcutta.

The results of Nag’s research are intertwined in the book. A white plate with a pile of powdered indigo blue; a page from a baptism register, in use since 1904; a fold-out page with portraits of Armenian college boys. Another photo dates from 1936, and shows a group photo of an Armenian College & Philanthropic Academy (ACPA) rugby team. Over the years, Armenians have successfully participated in trade, built schools and churches, and established themselves in society.

Today, the once thriving Armenian community numbers only about 100 people, and as we progress through the book, Nag introduces us to people she has met. Among those who stayed in Calcutta are Marie and her brother Saco at home, who sit at their table petting a cat, while staring straight into the camera. They still speak Armenian at home, and we also learn that their grandparents were genocide survivors. A dedicated series shows a selection of their family photos, including a formal family group photo, the wedding of their parents, Marie and her sister, and their mother in Calcutta. Marie has archived her family history in carefully restored albums.

Portraits of people fill the pages, evoking touching memories and tender moments. A square portrait shows Hermaoine Martin photographed against a black background as sunlight hits her face. She is a pure Armenian, born and raised in Calcutta. Although there is no portrait of Violet Smith, there is a photo of the Fairlawn Hotel she owned; the place is an institution, and people like Gunter Grass and Tom Stoppard have stayed there. When Smith passed away in 2014, Nag understood the urgency of documenting these stories. Their stories often had similar traces: the Armenian genocide, fears, flight and attempts to preserve the Armenian identity.

One of the last images in the book is a small, faded and scratched passport-size photo – it is unrecognizable, symbolically referring to the Armenian community. It is followed by a map of Armenia, photographed at ACPA. The book weaves together the history of the Armenian community and the history of Calcutta.

Nag’s project resembles another photobook released last year, Hidden Istanbul (review here) by Swiss photographer Françoise Caraco, who examined Istanbul’s Sephardic Jewish community. Much like Caraco, Nag used photography, archival documents, and a meticulous research process to piece together a lesser-known part of the story. Many people approached Nag after the book’s release to tell him how valuable and important projects like his are. Her photo book is a touching tribute to the Armenian community and an acknowledgment of its impact on the city’s history.

Collector’s point of view: Alakananda Nag does not appear to have a consistent gallery representation at this time. Therefore, collectors interested in following should probably connect directly with the artist via their website (linked in the sidebar).

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