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2019 SPE Annual Conference: The Myths of Photography and the American Dream / Major support by The Joy Family Legacy Foundation

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Neil Chowdhury

SPE Member since 2004
Member Chapter: West

A House Divided: Still Lives of 46 Lahiri Lane

A House Divided: Still Lives of 46 Lahiri Lane, chronicles a visit to the haveli in Howrah, West Bengal, where my father was raised. This property has been in the Chowdhury family for at least four generations, a vestigial reminder of the Zamindar system that held so many in human bondage for centuries, and now a crumbling ruin under contentious legal debate amongst the estranged surviving heirs. 13 years after I first visited this place, I finally had the chance in the summer of 2015 to document it in detail with my large format camera.

This recent visit was likely my last chance to photograph the house before the ravages of the tropical weather, a history of family strife, and the resulting neglect brings the place to the ground. As I photographed, I got to know the long time tenants of the place, who shared many tales of my family history. While sometimes difficult to digest, these missing pieces of my family's and father's story helped answer long standing questions surrounding the events that pushed him to emigrate from India as a very young man. The monsoon rains threatening to bring the rapidly deteriorating roof crashing down onto my head as I photographed, foreshadowed the destruction of my last physical link to the land of my paternal ancestry, other than my surname.

The tale of family disintegration echoed in the rotting structure of 46 Lahiri Lane mirrors that of many families in a city full of crumbling colonial ruins that have been divided up or demolished as a result of the slow motion repercussions emanating from the events of India's independence and partition in 1947. The quiet architectural views and still life photographs of the decaying belongings of my long departed paternal ancestors belie the drama and tension surrounding the production of the work, and the unspoken violence that it commemorates. Dissolution brought on by the collision of postcolonial history with the difficult and conflicting personalities of my lineage forms the texture of these photographs. Familial strife rooted in historical rupture continues to play out in legal proceedings, as well as the relentless creep of mold, cracked masonry, tree roots, and the final judgment of gravity on the contested fate of this property.

Although he discouraged my curiosity about India while I was growing up, I believe my father would have smiled at my later efforts to understand his culture. I have traveled thousands of miles, photographing all over the subcontinent over the past decade, only to find that his point of origin itself has somehow been preserved as a time capsule by his family's former servant. These locked upper chambers of 46 Lahri Lane had been waiting for me to discover, a perfect museum a social system that had outlived its natural era, and a memorial to a family swept away in the currents of history. This place and time launched my father on a global migration to create a hybrid family in a foreign land, yet remained itself fossilized, an object lesson through which I've traveled full circle to interpret his diasporic journey for myself.

I chose to render these images in the mutually corrosive 19th Century formulae of Cyanotype and VanDyke Brown, light sensitive chemical emulsions which destroy each other on contact. When they are layered in precisely the right proportions and densities, however, the combination yields an image that has some characteristics of both, yet also exhibits qualities possessed by neither method on its own. I use this technique in order to reference the legacy of colonial history that affected my paternal family's fortunes; an epochal clash of cultures that continues to form the political destiny of the Subcontinent, as well as the story of my own personal identity, raised in the United States, yet born of a marriage of between my Indian father and English mother. Were it not for the contentious encounter between these civilizations, I'd not be here to tell this tale.

46 Lahiri Lane Exterior View With Mango Tree

46 Lahiri Lane Interior Corridor View

46 Lahiri Lane Interior View, Dadu's Bedroom

46 Lahiri Lane, Courtyard Well

46 Lahiri Lane, Still Life with Teapot

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