Strolling through the galleries of Shilpakala Academy, where the recently held Dhaka Art Summit was on display, I stumbled upon a gem of a collection -- the black and white photographic display of 'The Bhawal Case'. The legendary case of the early nineteen hundreds was the first court case where photographs were presented as evidence; a fact shared by Rajib Samdani at the gallery. Samdani collected the originals which were interestingly displayed at the art summit; with a full court set-up and a performance of the court proceeding to invoke curiosity among the audience. I however missed the performance but the photographs etched their spot in my mind.
Royalty always intrigues me, and all the more when it is peppered with drama, thrill and murder like this case.
This case kept the people of Dhaka and Kolkata engrossed for quite a while; facts and rumours were abound. The Bhawal case was an extended Indian court case about a possible impostor who claimed to be the prince of Bhawal, who had been presumed dead a decade earlier. Ramendra Narayan Roy was a Kumar or prince of the Bhawal Estate, a large zamindari in then Bengal, now in modern-day Bangladesh. He was one of three brothers who had inherited the estate from their father.
Among the documented facts were that the Second Kumar of Bhawal was taken to Darjeeling by his wife, his brother-in-law and house physician for treatment where he passed away. However, while he was being readied for cremation a severe storm brewed and the ceremony was stalled. The Kumar was left alone on the cremation grounds throughout the heavy downpour; when suddenly he regained consciousness and was rescued by a group of naga sadhus or ascetic. The Kumar lost his memory and lived as a sadhu for 12 years, until he recalled his homeland to be in Dhaka. To cut the long story short he returned to Dhaka and lived on the Buckland Bandh where he was recognised as the Second Kumar and after much drama and claims he filed a case against his wife, which was fought for several years and the Kumar won the case; however he passed away two days after the verdict. His wife saw this as a divine answer that he was not the real Kumar though a forensic study, conducted on the dead body of the sadhu confirmed that he was indeed the Kumar.
Of course the rumours are many; the flamboyant Kumar had mistresses, gambled and had all sorts of habits of a rich, spoilt prince. His wife was having an affair with his physician, his brother-in-law wanted to grab his property and they all conspired to kill the Kumar. He was poisoned with arsenic. A real-life film script, his life story became the topic for many films, novels and folklores- you can all read about it all if it intrigues you because the story is put here in a tiny nutshell. But for now, let's shift focus to the strong photographic evidence that helped his case.
What grabbed my attention were the minute details seen in the photographs. In his early days the well-built, tall Second Kumar of Bhawal was fashionable and suave; he wore frockcoats, jackets over dhotis, fancy caps and shoes and cut the picture of a handsome and well-off prince. Later, as a sadhu with his hair grown long in dreadlocks, he only wore a dhoti over his robust bare body. Even later, when he reclaimed his right to the Bhawal state, he cut his hair short, gained a few pounds with age, but his fashion sense was even stronger than before. He presented himself in double breasted coat over dhoti, flaunted court shoes with bows and looked as much the handsome Kumar again.
The magic or the charm of black and white photographs are such, this particular story is no doubt fascinating and titillating, but if you go through any old family album you will find each picture telling you a story in time, a story that shows you the real time but not the real colour. As photographers put it 'colour is reality, black and white is not'; thus it is left upon you to visualise and weave your own imagination into each black and white photograph and you remain enthralled by it all till you flip the last page of that old album. The charms of black and white photographs are such.
Visual perception allows us to see a wide spectrum of colours, with all the subtleties of shades, lights and darks of the world around you; whereas black and white just perceives things in luminance or brightness, without the benefit of hue.
When you photograph in black and white, you rely on a greyscale spectrum that ranges from white to black with all the shades in between, which the professional call the Zone System. It is a way of looking at or judging pictures by its tonality, texture and contrast. That, in essence, is what black and white photography is all about.
The charm of black and white photographs relies on highlights and shadow, and the secrets they hold or reveal, in a way that often eludes the visual charms of colour. It plays with your ability of the mind to read more into an image than it may hold, or at the least to bring the viewer into a world in which design, content and form play an essential role.
Star Lifestyle this week throws light on the world of Black and White photography; we have interviewed celebrated photographer Munem Wasif and asked him about the grammar of this kind of photography. We have interviewed portrait master of our times – Sayeed Siddiqui – regarding the use of black and white in fashion and portrait photography. On top of all this, Star Lifestyle's very own renowned Sazzad Ibne Sayed has created for our readers a fantastic black and white fashion portfolio.
This 21st February, we pay respect to our language martyrs through this compilation of the charms and appeal of black and white photography.