March 18, 2015

Loads and Loads: The coolies of Kolkatta( Calcutta) burrabazar

Everything bought or sold in Bengal transits through the cramped lanes of the Burrabazar in Calcutta.
This has been going on for a while: see the attached Colesworthy Grant description in the 19th century....:

For oriental traffic, oriental tongues and oriental heads, commend me to the Burrabazar, a mart tailed on to the north end of the China bazaar and occupied and visited by traders from all parts of the east. Here may be seen the jewels of Golkanda and Bundelkhand, the shawls of Cashmere, the broad cloths of England, silks of Murshidabad and Benaras, muslins of Dacca, Calicoes, ginghams, Chintzes and beads from Coromandel, fruits and firs of Cabul, silk fabrics and brocades of Persia, spices and myrch from Ceylon, Spice Islands and Arabia, shells from the eastern coast and straits, drugs, dried fruit and sweetmeats from Arabia and Turkey, cow’s tails from Tibet and ivory from Ceylon; a great portion of these and various other articles too numerous to mention are either sold or bought by the natives from the countries where they are obtained who together with visitors, travellers and beggars form diversified group of Persians, Arabs, Jews, Marwarees, Armenians, Madrasees, Sikhs, Turks, Parsees, Chinese, Burmese and Bengalees.
Colesworthy Grant
Description of Burrabazar in mid-nineteenth century in his book Anglo-India Sketches.[1]

The best and cheapest way to get merchandises across this maze, over the bridge on the Ganges and on to Howrah station, is still today to have them carried on porter's heads.

These coolies fascinated June and me by the graceful way they perfectly balanced the heavy loads on their heads, by the long and dry muscles on their legs, and their unworldly gaze,
by the elegance in which they keep a  precarious and very human  verticality , for a job of beast of burden would do on 4 legs thus taking  a lot more space.
As our interest has for long been on athletes and performers they were for us a subject of choice.
These men live on the streets of the bazar, forming a large community of men who come often from the same province, were they left wife and kids. 
The bazar wakes up in the morning with the men  washing themselves together at street fountains pumping out the holy water 
from the river, before having  hot sweet chai in one time use clay cups.
The activity picks up then around 8.30 and quickly gets frantic not slowing down  till the evening, the coolies move swiftly a load after the other to get a good day”s earning.
Even the older men, their muscles trembling  not to  collapse  under the bulk all over them, do their best to keep their pace.
They are so busy that was not easy to get them stop running a few minutes to have their portrait taken in the mini studio we did set up 
in a guest house  perched on  one the bazar's mansions. 
All these men have a piece of cloth forming a turban on the head when they carry a load, we kept the turbans as a leitmotiv for the coolie portrait series.
We found a an observation spot  on the stairs up to bridge. From this point of vue it seemed that the cargoes had replaced their porters heads , forming a  procession of  unlikely  monsters...

In addition to the relatively consistent series of the big head monsters and the portraits  with a turban, we roamed the bazar taking snap shots focusing of the running legs and feet and to make the movement study as complete as we could we shot a fixed frame video of our heroes passing by.