OUR CALCUTTA, THIS CRUMBLING CITY, IT ECHOES WITH CRIES OF PAIN AND HOWLS OF AGONY
It is a lament of despair that is heavy with the burden of multitudinous individual anguishes—each heaped above the next—amounting to an almighty collective wail. The wracked city of Calcutta contains these cries, emits these cries, and fundamentally is these cries. Journeying into the nocturnal world of this forgotten land and its forgotten people—among them drug-addicts, prostitutes, vagrants, street-entertainers and the mentally-deranged—Soham Gupta, in his acclaimed book ANGST (Akina Books, 2018), chronicles the bleak and disturbed existence of those dwelling on the margins of society through a haunting collection of portraits and short-stories. Yet, as much as Gupta’s work ventures into the peripheries, the faraway shadows of an abandoned, and almost-timeless, place, it ultimately transcends them. Far more than a documentation of a city and its people, at its heart, it serves as an expression of a psychological state, rooted in something more essential and nuclear.
With the night pervading, ubiquitous and a seemingly infinite phantom throughout Gupta’s work, it acts metaphorically for the unconscious, the vast abyss that harbours one’s innermost fears. As we descend ever-deeper into its darkness, encountering the myriads of its peripheral souls, weary from their anxieties of scarred pasts and uncertain futures, we thus find ourselves falling further into the depths of Gupta’s very own psyche. In the very Nietzschean sense, Gupta’s gaze into the abyss inverts, ineluctably transforming into an introspective gaze into his own abyss. Himself a victim of depression, physical and sexual abuse and crippling asthmatic attacks which plagued his childhood, Gupta is no stranger to the torments of isolation, non-belonging and vulnerability. Embedded with these latent traumas, each portrait thereby functions as a projection of his own experiences of existential angst.
The images are collaborative in nature, the result of intimate interactions in which Gupta and his subjects would confide in one another, exchanging stories of regrets, fears, hopes and dreams. In one affecting moment, he recalls “Raju, a heroin addict, who proffered a syringe as a token of generosity. He said it was all he could give me.” It is Gupta’s very humane approach that rejects any criticisms that the images may be in any way exploitative or voyeuristic in nature. Like Seiji Kurata was when documenting the underground world of Ikebukuro’s misfits, in Gupta, we find a man bearing an instinctive affinity with those existing on the margins of society. He walks with and amongst them, identifying with their pains and their longings. “THIS CITY OF OURS/ CALCUTTA…”, he begins to ruminate, a poignant, albeit elegiac, affirmation of the community in which he was born out of, and will always remain.
Broadly, ANGST raises questions about social morality and Darwinian capitalism, in turn critiquing a severe and unforgiving society in which the weakest and most vulnerable are neglected. More at its heart, it is a very personal reckoning with a place and its people, and fundamentally a manifestation of one’s ineffable feelings towards it. Oscillating between his despair of the city’s horrors and his unconditional love for its people, we feel Gupta wrestling with its extremes in something akin to a strained love affair with Calcutta—in his own words—his “muse”. Perhaps this serves as the overarching anxiety of Gupta’s work—the struggle to marry, let alone comprehend, these conflicting sentiments. “After all, this bitter place you see remains with me wherever I go. It is indelible. I will never get Calcutta out of my system.”
Here is a sense of entrapment that permeates Gupta’s work. As the “[ECHOING] CRIES OF PAIN AND HOWLS OF AGONY” remind us, for all its seemingly infinite anguishes, what we have witnessed is a space of confined perimeters, with no exit in sight. The groans reverberate, rebound and compound within the city’s four-walls, a hellish chamber devoid of even the slightest glimmer of light. For its inhabitants, it is the only reality they know, and perhaps the only reality they will ever know. They just go on living, lurking beneath the shadows, invisible to the rest… As Hubert Selby Jr. wrote in The Room (1971): “They don’t know the terrors that go through your mind as you lie there in the pit waiting for a hint of light to tell you that the night is over.”
All images Soham Gupta, ANGST (Akina Books, 2018)