On 4 September, when Mother Teresa is canonised at the Vatican, Rome will witness a unique spectacle to commemorate the event — a tribute to the saint by fans of her adopted city, Kolkata.
Photographer Kounteya Sinha, who is known for his documentary and journalistic projects, is headed to Italy soon to launch The Sainthood Project, which seeks to present Kolkata in a new light.
As he puts it, "The Sainthood Project diminishes everyone involved with it into a Nobody." The idea is to get people to unite in their love for Kolkata and get them to travel to Rome, where they will stand in strategic locations every day, for about ten days, holding photographs of the city Mother Teresa made her home.
"Those involved in the project aren't stars," says Sinha. "They are simple, common people. It is a project run by Nobodies."
One of them, for instance, is Surasree Seal, a photographer from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata who struggles to make her ends meet. "She's not only never had a passport, she hasn't even walked into an airport, let alone been abroad," Sinha says. In spite of her difficulties as a young artist, Seal has agreed to come on board as the creative director of the project. Her reason, she says, is to be able to show Kolkata "in my own way".
Sakhi Singhi, a student of theatre at the Sarah Lawrence College, New York, is also flying in to Rome to become another "Nobody", inspired by the historical richness of Kolkata and Rome. In the final count, about six people, apart from Sinha, would be living on pizzas and flanking the streets of Rome for several days in late August and early September — all for the love of their beloved city.
The images, about 50 and all made by Sinha, are intended to provide a counterpoint to the stereotypes of poverty and suffering associated with Kolkata, particularly by visitors from the West. Sinha's camera looks away from the sickness and squalor, towards unusual vignettes of beauty that spring up in the midst of the city.
Formerly based in London, Sinha recently opened a show in Kolkata, called Stone: Being and Becoming, which bring together iconic slices of life from the city. Actor Om Puri had flown in, after almost a quarter of a century, to be part of an event hosted at the gallery to meet rickshaw-pullers. Puri, who acted in the role of one in the cinematic adaptation of the bestseller City of Joy, was invited to this occasion for obvious reasons.
Mother Teresa, who arrived in Kolkata in the 1930s (then known as Calcutta) as a young nun called Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, founded the Order of the Missionaries of Charity in 1946. For the next fifty years, she devoted her life to serving the poor, helpless, diseased and destitute, including patients of leprosy, who were treated like stigma by society.
If her work was revered by millions, it also drew sharp criticism from many. Accusations of misuse of funds and being more concerned with evangelism than philanthropy were two of the major complaints against her. Her views on contraception and divorce came under fire, too, for being overtly dogmatic.
After her death in 1997, Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003, which means the Catholic Church accepted that she had been allowed entry into heaven. In 2008, after the second evidence of her miraculous powers was exhibited, in which a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumours was cured, she was deemed fit for canonisation. The ceremony in September is now going to complete the process of Mother Teresa's transformation into St. Teresa.
The city of Kolkata Mother Teresa spent most of her life in was filled with sickness and suffering, largely due to the failure of the Left Front government, which ruled West Bengal for over 30 years, in most areas of civic and public reforms. Thanks to the Left's legacy, Kolkata became a city of visual clichés: rumbling tram cars, emaciated rickshaw-pullers, dilapidated façades of colonial-era buildings and sleeping babus in sarkari offices.
One may look away from the filthy by-lanes, the yellow cabs, the crumbling elegance of Howrah Bridge or the dust-laden angel on the dome of Victoria Memorial Hall, yet the aura of noble gloom doesn't leave one in Kolkata. The smell of grand decay sticks to the skin like a reminder of the city's erstwhile glorious past.
The current chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who has resolved to make the state's capital look swell, has set her sights high: not at fellow metropolises like Delhi and Mumbai, but at faraway London. Yet, the city continues to negotiate the pull of glitzy modernity and the stubborn inertia of tradition, unable to decide what to lose and what to keep.
Sinha's photographs are yet another attempt in a series of traditions to document the evolution of the city, since the days of Mother Teresa's arrival there to the present. After an initial glitch with online crowdfunding, money has been trickling in from across the world, largely through word of mouth and social media. Sinha, too, has pitched in with his personal funds, though there's still a long way to go.
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