When we were at the AIIS archive in Gurgaon, we researched both the old way (card catalogues) and the new way (electronically.) Both methods have their delights and frustrations. One of our challenges was to identify the location of what was mistakenly labeled on one of our negatives as the ‘Biliji Temple’ (it should have been ‘Balaji.’) Several people had suggested that it couldn’t possibly be in West Bengal, due to the fact that it was a South Indian style temple. Did this mean our guy was traveling? Maybe we’re looking for more than one photographer, perhaps several? But the style is too consistent for multiple eyes—it’s got to have been taken by one person. And we found all these negatives together in one shoe box, sold off, God knows why, or by whom, or when. We bought the material at the estate sale of a photography collector, but where he had gotten it was anybody’s guess.
Additional research soon revealed that Kharagpur was a major railway hub, containing what is still the longest platform in the world. Many of the workers recruited for this project were South Indian—and they needed a temple. So they built one in their own style, hence a South Indian temple in West Bengal. On the internet we found a contemporary photo of the temple, in Kharagpur, taken from exactly the same perspective as one of our 1945 photographs. This was a cause of major rejoicing in the stacks. I love research! But we still needed to confirm it in person.
On our third day in Kharagpur we went in search of our Balaji temple. It took a while for our driver to find it, but after asking rickshaw drivers and chai wallahs while avoiding passing cows, we rounded a corner though a narrow street and there it was, behind a gate, shining white just as in our photos.
The gate was open but the place seem deserted; we had arrived in-between services. We wandered around, checking our book, trying to find the correct vantage points. We were confused. Some views were identical, others were not. We felt alternately elated and confused, an increasingly common sensation in India. Finally someone approached and explained that one wall of the temple had recently been replaced with new idols, causing our uncertainty. It’s easy to forget that these are living traditions, not artifacts for passing social scientists, photographers or tourists to enjoy. The old structure was falling apart, portions needed to be replaced. How were they to know that two artists from 9000 mile away Chicago might show up one day with an old photo of their temple and need confirmation? There was now no question—we were standing in the same place our soldier/photographer had stood almost 70 years ago.
We were already thrilled, but then something remarkable happened. A young man approached, looked at our open book, pointed to the photo labeled “Old Priest” and said: “That’s my great-grandfather!”
He identified Sri A Narayan Swamy Naidu, who founded the temple in 1935, only 10 years before our photo had been taken. Raju Naidu and others who had gathered suggested we come back the next day, when they would bring the priest’s now 90+ year old daughter-in-law. Our dream had been to be able to identify not only the temples, but a person in the photos, to remove the abstraction of photography and to ground the images in the real, historical world, making a concrete connection from past to present. We had done so.
The next day, Padmavati Naidu arrived; she was deeply moved when she saw the photograph. We gave her a copy, which she clutched to her chest. Photography is so commonplace now that we forget its comparative rarity years ago; it is unlikely that she had any similar pictures. If our anonymous photographer only knew the joy he provided so many years later.
We are still hoping to find that little girl clutching a water pitcher in front of the temple. She must now be in her 70s. No luck so far, but our entire Indian experience has been characterized by surprise, serendipity and wonder. No reason to think that the search for a little girl will be any different.