The “M” pages are full of interesting people and there are many stories that I wish to share. But, that will have to wait. I will depart from the self-imposed alphabetical protocol and narrate an episode from the 70’s.
The people in this story are real and though I have lost touch with them many, many years ago, I will still not use their actual names. A few of us from the Art College started an artists’ combine to share the work load that most of us had as freelance designers. So, at the end of the first year (mid ’73 and still in my late teens) we found a shared office space and put up a studio in an old decrepit building on Mission Row Extension. We then moved to an even more decrepit building on Clive Row. This was a large hall with scores of offices partitioned off with steel filing cabinets. It was in the heart of the stock market and was as noisy as any fish market. Finally we moved to another shared space on Chowringhee Road. We moved again and again and again, every time getting better locations. But, my story is located in our first Chowringhee Road studio.
|The old property at the end of the alley has undergone much alteration.|
Between Bible House that has Stephens Opticians on the ground floor and the YMCA building there is a narrow driveway that leads to a large old property which housed a small printing press, Photovisual Colour Lab, the offices of the Bengali magazine “Parichay”, Latif’s camera repairing workshop and a few other small business establishments. In this compound, Chhobida had his photographic studio. It was a single storied largish room under the shade of a large mango tree.
As one entered the space there was a small office room measuring no more than 7 by 6 feet that contained a table and a few assorted chairs. On the right was a door that opened into another small air-conditioned cubicle no more than 5 by 6 feet. A narrow counter ran along one wall and two somewhat bulky upholstered chairs jostled for space. As one walked into the main studio there were two dark rooms on the right and Chhobida’s studio took up the rest of the space. The actual shooting space was curtained off and behind it was a tripod with a large plate camera and a hideous looking rexene covered sofa-cum-bed. On the left there were small windows under which were a long dirty sink and a table for making tea. The room actually was cut up into two unequal “L” shapes – the larger one was the studio and the smaller one contained all that I described earlier. The smaller “L” had a loft above which was to be our studio. The loft was low, about 4 feet high and accessible by a steep wooden ladder and as one reached the final rung one had to stoop and get on all fours and crawl towards our respective drawing tables set on the floor. We sat cross legged on cushions. Despite the low ceiling the space was well lit and airy, but, long hours in that kind of posture gave us leg cramps and we would climb down and sit in the front office, which Chhobida and we used alternatively. Sometimes we would find the front office occupied and so we would walk out on to the main road, turn right, cross Stephens Opticians and the shops that sold fake Rayban sunglasses and turn into another property just before one hits Lindsay Street. Here was a long single storied structure on the right, which was originally a row of garages (maybe stables given the unusual height) now turned into shops and store rooms. Behind it was a bamboo ladder to the terrace where Babu Das had his sign board painting studio. It was a rough bamboo structure with a tarpaulin cover part of the way and an open terrace at the far end that had a billboard which provided shade when the sun moved to the west. Here, we would sit on low paint spattered wooden stools and chat while sipping sweet tea and having a much needed smoke.
While we worked in the studio in the loft, we would hear the main door open and close with a squeak – people coming in to meet Chhobida. Sometimes we saw them, sometimes we just heard them. The ones we saw were mostly nondescript middle-aged people. There were others who stood out for their peculiarities or behaviour. One of them was an established actress whose coquettish body language contrasted with a face that feigned innocence. She was perhaps a bit more than mid-thirty and her career was on the wane. Let me name her “Nyakamukhi” (literally translated as a face that feigns innocence) for the sake of this narrative. She would usually be accompanied by a heavy set man who wore “safari suits” and expensive sunglasses and a flashy gold watch. The top three buttons of his shirt would always be open revealing a gold chain against a dark, oily, hairless chest. Despite his well tailored clothes, we were never convinced that he was a movie producer. Why else would Mr. Gold Watch spend hours in the small air-conditioned cabin with Nyakamukhi? In public they looked dotingly at each other. They were obviously having an affair we assumed. He was generous though when it came to sharing out expensive cigarettes or ordering “shingaras” for everyone.
|The present owner's choice of colour. |
The squeaky door remains.
One day when I clambered down from our perch, Chhobida was hanging out a few prints to drip over the sink. He looked at me and requested me to fetch a few clips from the dark room. I went into the dark room and as my eyes adjusted to the low light of a red lamp, I noticed prints of a nude woman. I looked closely and Nyakamukhi looked back at me. I saw that she was slender but her face registered a kind of bewilderment as if shocked at her own nakedness. I also noticed that she had bad posture. She looked ill at ease and it was evident that she was not used to this. The ill paid models in the art college were far more confident and graceful. While a hundred questions ran through my mind Chhobida yelled “Did you find them? Look on the left top shelf”. “Yes, found them,” I yelled back collecting a handful of clips and rushing out of the dark room. I handed him the clips and saw that he was looking at my face intently. Did my expression betray me? As I climbed back up, I saw him leave what he was doing and rush off into the dark room and a few moments later rush out with a manila envelope and go to what we had by now named the love cabin. I heard what seemed like a whispered argument, followed by the squeak of the main door and Mr. Gold Watch’s voice fading out.
I stooped over my table and started working while my mind was trying to sort out things. Why? I asked myself did Nyakamukhi have to do this. What were her compulsions? Although not so young anymore she was an established actress. Was Mr. Gold Watch actually Mr. Fixer? For whom were the photographs intended? I had heard much about the sleazy world of cinema and about casting couches, but, at twenty, I was still unprepared for this experience.
Needless to say Nyakamukhi and Mr. Gold Watch never came back. This incident did not end there. Unable to keep things to myself, I shared it with my colleagues and Bhombol started snooping in the dark room whenever Chhobida was out. His perseverance over months became a matter of great hilarity until we moved to another office on the 17th. floor also on Chowringhee Road with a beautiful view of the city greens stretching towards the river.
A year or so later we learnt about Nyakamukhi dying a gory death. It was in the newspapers.