Santanu Dey
The Lost Legacy

At the beginning of the 17th century, the British East India Company made Britain a colonial power in India, bringing great changes to the social order. In modern Bangladesh, the British established the zamindari system, which allowed a group of Indians who owned large tracts of land to enjoy privileges and wealth. With the end of colonial rule on 15 August 1947, the situation changed for the aristocratic zamindar families. Santanu Dey’s photo project looks at the descendants of the zamindars, whose families have played a significant role in the economic and cultural history of Kolkata and Bangladesh. Their contemporary descendants tell us about the era of decolonisation.

  • Colonialism
  • Discrimination
  • Family
  • India
  • Memory
3 Questions
1. The door opener: Can you describe a formative moment in your career as a visual journalist?

I think for me the most formative moment is when I was selected in a postgraduate diploma in Photography at Counterfoto Center for Visual Arts, Dhaka, Bangladesh. When I stayed in Dhaka due to my course, I found a lot of mentors, photographers, artists from whom I got a chance to learn a lot of things. Due to my assignments, I have to visit different places, sometimes it happens that I don’t have an idea about the place, but I think this is the actual process of how I can manage and complete my assignment in such conditions. I think this is a journey where I actually connect and start to understand what is art and photography. And the whole process helps me create my own language.

2. The decisive moment: When did you first encounter your topic and why did you decide to cover it photographically?

For me, photography is an art medium that helps me create my language to express my feelings. Being a visual storyteller, I used to tell stories of my personal experiences about contemporary social issues from my own perspective. I think through the research and ongoing process a project can create its own language. As a documentary photographer, I feel inclined to a very specific topic which has had a great influence on my childhood. Partition is a very important part of my life so I decided to do this long-term documentary project. My actual plan is to create a trilogy about the effect of partition and “Lost Legacy” is the first part of this trilogy. So this whole work is very intimate for me as well as it’ll be a huge aftermath documentary of post-partition conditions in India both culturally and socially.

3. The future: What could the visual journalism of the future be like?

We know photography is a combination of art and science. Art is up to the artist who creates his own orientation but science gives us a lot of new technology, which takes photography on a different level now. The concept of visual journalism is going to change day by day. Technology is a very obvious factor nowadays and it will increase even more in the near future. One of the examples is mobile photography. Mobile photography is hugely used in visual journalism because of its easy accessibility. Today, the video is also very important in visual journalism because photography is only the still medium, but a video can give viewers both audio and visual. The platform of visual journalism is also changing. Now we know about Facebook citizen journalism, which develops with the community. That helps us to easily access everywhere. So, for me, I think we can’t predict what the actual future of visual journalism will be like but these are all probabilities.

Further Questions
Could you, please, describe the moment when and the reason why you decided to make this story?

As a documentary photographer, I feel inclined to a very specific topic that has had a great influence on my childhood. I heard a lot of stories from my father and grandfather that my ancestral home was Faridpur in Bangladesh, but due to the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, we were forced to leave our home and came to South Kolkata and started living there. I missed the memory of my ancestor’s house. But Kolkata is my home, the city where I was born and live in has influenced me a lot, as practising art in all its available forms is the essence of Kolkata. These are the very traumatic past experiences which I always heard and was brought up with. Partition is a very important part of my life, so I decided to do this long-term documentary project.

Where did you find the individuals you portrayed and how did you contact them?

As a documentary photographer, I think research is very important to execute a project properly. When I decide to do a project, then I do a lot of research theoretically and practically that helps me understand the subjectivity as well as the objectivity of my works. So when I decided to do this project, I found a lot of books about the decolonisation of Bengal and zamindars, I also found a lot of archival lists of zamindars/former elites. So that helped me to create a social mapping of these zamindars, then I went to talk with them physically and gave them an idea of what I exactly wanted to do and if they were interested. Then I started to shoot. So in this long-term work shooting is the very last process rather than research, searching and permission to shoot these families.

Is this topic a matter of an ongoing historical discussion or are the stories behind those individuals and their families in danger of getting lost?

I think it is an ongoing historical discussion on how the zamindari system developed during the colonisation period. What was their power and prestige at this time? They have basically maintained a bridge between coloniser and society. So basically, they helped the British monarchy to rule in Bengal. And then how did the decolonisation affect them? They lost their power and prestige. The exclusivity of these families is no more existent. How does the partition affect them? Like any other Indians, they, too, lead a normal life as members and they are in various types of employment. Each family has separate stories and their loss, but in a larger aspect, this work is a never-ending historical discussion about the “upper-class” former elites in Bengal.

How is the general opinion about these people at the moment, is there a public interest in them and their heritage?

Once zamindars were very powerful, they could do anything what they wanted because they were the representatives of the colonisers during the colonisation period. But now in the wave of decolonisation, they lost their power. In the early days, if any common people wanted to enter a zamindari palace they had to go through with lots of restrictions and rules but now the scenarios are completely different. The biggest festival in Bengal, Durga-Puja, in this time “lower-class” people were not permitted to enter Thakurdalan (worship place) but these rules have disappeared. So that fear and prestige are going to disappear due to decolonisation, it’s true, but general people still love their heritage value. People visit these zamindari palaces as a historical spot, not in order to visit these families. Though I think this is a huge social change due to partition and decolonisation. I believe these families are the living archives of the colonisation period and the sociopolitical landscape of Bengal.

What was your personal opinion about the time period and the persons you dealt with? Has anything changed whilst working with them?

When I first interacted with these families and gave them an overview of my work, most of these families beautifully welcomed and cooperated with me. However, some former elite families still maintain their arrogance and they are not interested in archives, but this percentage is very low. One most important thing is that they actually lost their position everywhere. The aristocracy is going to be on the verge of extinction.
I never made them any promises that my work will help them or anything. I just want to archive the whole scenario of zamindars due to a decolonisation perspective. Because my main intention to elaborate on how partition effects every level of society, no matter someone is upper-class, middle-class, or lower-class. So they also believe that after completing this work there will be a huge collection of zamindars of Bengal and it’ll be an archive for our future generations.

Curated by Tom Wesse

© for all photos by the photographers
© for videos Lumix Festival Hanover, if not indicated otherwise.

*7 July 1991 in India
Rather than continue his training as a financial bookkeeper, Santanu Dey took the opportunity to study photography at the Counterfoto Center for Visual Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His social-documentary projects have earned many distinctions, most recently at the Jakarta International Photo Festival in 2019 and the Indian Photography Festival in Hyderabad. Dey won a prize in the 2019 Andrei Stenin International Press Photo Contest.


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