Post 31 – A Major Breakthrough

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.

Success_webAdditional 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. Balaji 1945


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.

Balaji detail 1945Balaji-detail-2014_web

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.

Padmavati-Naidu-at-Balaji_web Jerri-and-Padmavati-at-Balaji_web

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.

1203We 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.

6 thoughts on “Post 31 – A Major Breakthrough

  1. While most of us will never make a discovery as fascinating or unique as your Balji temple experience, we can learn from it and perhaps go back to our own childhood home/neighborhood and see what has changed and what remains. Especially if we remember to bring a photo from that time past to confirm our memory and perhaps enlighten current residents. A mutually beneficial exchange.

  2. Hello Jerri and Alan, I just found this site and the related article in Chicago Reader. I have been adding captions to my grandfather’s WW2 war album pictures (about 500 of them), and have been trying to identify the places he saw. One of them (I cannot believe it) is Balaji Temple — the same vantage view as your picture, but with an Indian man and a naked child standing in front of the structure. My grandfather was a ground crew mechanic in Kharagpur and Pengshan, China (and later on Tinian) from 1944-45. I had thought this was south Indian also — no wonder I could not identify it. I also have some other pictures — by the same photographer, most likely. My grandfather must have acquired them while at Kharagpur, before shipping to Tinian in May ’45. I have not fully read through your Chicago Reader article, but will do so tomorrow. If you wish to contact me, I am a professor of History, and would love to share notes! I have not visited India, but have been to Pengshan air base in China. The captions I am preparing are to accompany a scanned set of his pictures already donated to New England Air Museum (CT), which houses a large collection of military memoirs and pictures belonging to servicemen of the 58th Bomb Wing (Kharagpur was one of the bases they used, as you know). Many thanks for your research and posting of this picture and story! David T. Fletcher

  3. One more thought about your mystery photographer: The reason these photographs may have been sold originally (whenever that happened) is possibly because this was a military photographer (10th Air Force, Photographic Technical Unit — as you already know) who may have been using military (Army) equipment and even Army film for what was essentially a private purpose — taking anthropological-style / lifestyle photos while on his own time. That was likely considered a misuse of Army equipment, especially if the soldier intended to sell the pictures (as he seems to have done — either as prints, or perhaps he may have hoped to sell to a magazine such as Life). Realizing that he might not get away with that — at least until after his discharge, he may have stored the negatives, and then the war ended and the independence movement captured the world’s attention (or something happened to him — we cannot know until his identity becomes known). But as for the date (late April – early May?) — that seems to be the brief period just before the last of the 468th ground crew shipped out of Kharagpur through Calcutta to deploy to Tinian (though your man may or may not have been part of that group). Likely, whether he left then or not, he may have had R&R time then, and thus we have these pictures, from one of his free set of days. Other US soldiers also took photos — sometimes using Army camera equipment — in India and China (I know of a chaplain who did so, and other soldiers had their own cameras, which would not have produced the same quality photos as these). Last thing — as I said, I seem to have similar prints in my grandfather’s collection, and know that soldiers often acquired professional-style photos in places abroad (especially the Pacific Theater). Your photographer may well have hoped to cash in using his Army equipment, and then thought better of it after selling off some prints to local troops at Kharagpur. (He would not have been the only soldier looking to make a buck on the side in the CBI Theater — there were several methods.) To narrow down possible candidates, you might be able to get a personnel list for the 10th PTU from the National Archives or a similar US military archive. Some personnel lists do still survive.

    Hope this is useful!

    David T. Fletcher

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