The Photo of Another: A Conversation on Shan Bhattacharya’s Portal

The Photo of Another: A Conversation on Shan Bhattacharya’s Portal

Malavika Madgulkar

The story begins with Shan Bhattacharya’s visit to a photo studio in Calcutta, abandoned and in a state of disrepair since the mysterious and sudden disappearance of its owner, Achintya Bose, in 1997. While rummaging around with his friends for vintage equipment, Bhattacharya chances upon an ‘executive diary’ belonging to the former owner. Bose’s account opens with a couple walking in to his studio looking to have their picture taken. When they don’t return to collect their prints even after weeks pass, Bose doesn’t think much of it – until he encounters an old wedding photo at his friends house. Even though Bose’s picture of the couple from the studio was taken at least a decade after the found photograph, even though one couple is Hindu and the other Christian, the women in the two pictures bear an uncanny resemblance. What follows is a detailed, fervid account of Bose’s repeated encounters with a mysterious, perpetually youthful woman, in photographs that span over a century. Appearing in photographs as disparate personalities and in disjointed temporalities, the mysterious woman takes on the character of a ghostly obsession for Bose. Portal: The Curious Account of Achintya Bose  is a reproduction of this diary accompanied with ‘evidence’ in the form of newspaper clippings, photographs and the chaotic ball-point scrawl of a man wanting to prove, if only to himself, the soundness of his mind. It should be mentioned at this point that Bose and his diary are fictional ­– “conceptualized, compiled and reproduced”, as the last page of the book states, by Shan Bhattacharya. The distinction between truth and fiction and the question of whether such a distinction matters undergirds much of the intrigue of Portal.


On 18th September, the SSAF Lab hosted an online discussion on Bhattacharya’s novella. Panelists invited were Shohini Ghosh, Rimli Bhattacharya, Ranu Roychoudhuri and Shan Bhattacharya. Portal is a book that blurs the boundary between its diegetic world and the ‘real’ world with references to its own objecthood embedded into its design. To familiarize the audience with this aspect of the book, the event began with the audience being shown several images of its pages. The jacket design, as Shohini Ghosh described during the event, is a faded blackish-green with a facsimile of the singular envelope one receives (or used to receive) from the photo studio, with freshly printed photos and processed negatives tucked inside. The envelope reproduction (proclaiming the “Bose Colour Studio”) is upside down, with the flap turned up – as if ready to be peered into, a portal in itself. This little ‘trick’ of the cover, Ghosh explained, demands attention, creates mystery and chaos – setting the tone for the rest of the book’s unfolding.


Bhattacharya outlined the ideas and influences that merged and evolved to become the story of Achintya Bose. Bhattacharya took inspiration from the cinematic ­(Duane Michals’ film-still-like narrative photo series Take One and See Mt Fujiyama and the assembly of  disjointed images as in Soviet montage) ­as well as the literary (the non-linear, multi-character novel The Savage Detectives). A key influence, and perhaps the one closest to Portal in its motivations was Joan Fontcuberta’s Fauna. Fontcuberta, in collaboration with Pere Formiguera, produced a series of manipulated photographs depicting fantastical animals – a monkey with wings, a furry fish, a snake with tiny legs – and presented it as the forgotten archives of a missing zoologist. Fontcuberta later reported that a sizeable percentage of his audience believed the fictional zoologist to really have existed and that the archive was legitimate. It is not difficult to imagine the reader of Portal making a similar blunder and mistaking Bose’s collection as a true, albeit unexplainable, document. Fontcuberta’s statement that “photography always lies, lies instinctively, lies because its nature does not permit it to do anything else”, resonates throughout Bhattacharya’s project. Besides these conceptual influences, Portal is woven with intertextual references to the history of photography in India. Ranu Roychoudhuri pointed out Bhattacharya’s citations of Pablo Bartholomew’s intimate black and white portraits of his friends in a few  photographs from Bose’s archive. Other photographs of the mysterious woman and the many disparate worlds she inhabits in them were based on Bhattacharya’s own family archives. The clothes, similarly, were borrowed from Bhattacharya’s  parents’ old wardrobes. However, to lend authenticity to the photographs, Bhattacharya explained, clothes and technical specificities were not enough – it was necessary also to emulate certain historically specific behaviours in front of the camera.


As Bhattacharya simultaneously appeared to his viewer/reader as himself (the creator of the hoax) and as a character (the reader of Bose’s diary), so too were Bose’s ‘real life’ counterparts brought into the discussion by Roychoudhuri, who showed photographs of the photo studios and their proprietors from her own research in Kolkata and surrounding provincial districts. These studios are spaces that, Roychoudhuri explained, in Christopher Pinney’s reading, open up possibilities to enact a multitude of fantasy selves. Here the obligation to represent a single, unified and true self falls away and one is free to perform a variety of selfhoods for the camera. This quality of the studio photograph reverberates through the novella as the photographic body of the same woman reappears in multiple roles, locations and temporalities. Roychoudhuri noted that while Bhattacharya’s references to Indian photographers like Bartholomew could instantly be recognized as nods to the history of photography in the country, studio photographers like Bose are rarely acknowledged as having agency in shaping that history. Later there was a discussion on the commercial studio owner and auteurship when Rimli Bhattacharya noted Bose’s lack of comment on the aesthetic or technical qualities of the images he finds of the mysterious woman. Wouldn’t a photographer like him have something to say about how the photographs he finds were made? Responding to her comment, Bhattacharya clarified that in his conception, Bose is more of a worker than an artist – a nihilist possessing no real passion for the craft he practices. He is not the sole author of the photos he takes; they are made to the satisfaction of his client. He reluctantly runs the business he inherited from his father until he can find an opportunity to sell it. It is only with the strange phenomenon of the mysterious woman who never ages that his life gains purpose and direction.


Regardless of Bose’s reticence on the subject in his diary, Portal is, at its heart a metanarrative about the medium of photography. Roychoudhuri spoke of the ways in which Portal continually brings our attention to the materiality of the image and the book itself. It exposes, she explained, the failure of the photograph as a indexical medium, pointing to a fixed truth. Shan Bhattacharya – the character who encounters Bose’s eerie findings ­– never attempts to search for the mysterious woman in the photographs. He recognizes that the search for photographic truth is a meaningless quest. “The meaning of the photograph, Portal shows us, is always fluid”, Roychoudhuri said. Several significances, of the other ‘protagonist’ of Portal, the figure of the elusive, mysterious woman were also explored. Shohini Ghosh, reading the woman’s recurrent presence as a kind of haunting, explicated Avery Gordon’s formulation of the ghost as a “social figure” that contains within it knowledge that cannot otherwise be accessed. Acknowledging, seeing, and listening to ghosts allows us to recognize, in the present, the affect of that which has been lost, suppressed, excluded in history. A photograph, carrying on its surface a moment from the past, disrupts the idea of a unified present and breaks with linear temporality. Indeed, in this sense, the photograph has much in common with the ghost whose haunting presence denotes a rupture in time – a return of the past into the present. The mysterious woman, who Bose only ever encounters in photographs or photographic contexts, then, could be seen as another aspect of Portal’s meta-commentary.


Portal ends on a rational note, with a neuroscientist explaining the phenomenon of face blindness and suggesting that this was, most likely, the cause for Bose’s eerie experience. Ghosh reads this rationalization as the novella’s way to “banish away the ghosts”, to restore order to the world of the reader who has just been exposed to this uncanny, chaotic story. Rimli Bhattacharya, on the other hand, analysed the mysterious woman as a literary device to navigate the social history of Kolkata. She pointed out that while the mysterious woman takes on several avatars in the course of the novella, they are all located within the social class of the well-educated, beautiful Bengali bhadramahila. The most interesting avatars for Rimli Bhattacharya were those that pointed to a genealogy of Calcutta and its population beyond its most privileged subjects. Bose’s account includes a letter from a Colonel William Hadlee, attached with photographs of a “local Hindoo window” he encountered while visiting a temple. Resembling, of course, the mysterious woman, the widow appears to stare directly back at the Colonel’s camera, as if challenging the colonial male gaze. It is moments like these, she explained, where the mysterious woman escapes the closed world of the bhadralok and makes connections, however fleeting, with the rich tapestry of the diverse women inhabiting and shaping Calcutta through its history, that gives the novella its richest pages. Rimli Bhattacharya encouraged the audience to ask which figurations of this mysterious presence might have been invisible to Bose. What roles could she have assumed which Bose’s imagination – limited by his social context – could not perceive?


In this sense, while the discussion focused on and celebrated the significance of Bose’s ‘curious account’, it also emphasized the flights of imagination the novella generates, the myriad intersecting connections it makes or holds the possibility of making. Portal underlines the world as full of chaos, mystery, where both the found and the unfound reveal the making of a society. Bhattacharya summed it up when, talking about the time he found a bunch of photos from a 1982 birthday party in an abandoned photo studio, he said, “There is always a sense that there is something to be found”.