A Visual Research at a Shelter for the Dying in Kolkata (an Online Gallery) By Egor Novikov

The sketches, photographs and field notes collected in this online gallery were made in April 2016 during an anthropological fieldwork at Kalighat Home for the Dying Destitutes. The shelter is founded by Mother Teresa and run by her monastic order Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata (Calcutta)*. My research was focused on the life changing experience of the western volunteers working with the bare life of the marginalized Indians. I found this experience being tightly bound to corporeal phenomena: physical contact, monstrous images of suffering and transgression of spatial borders. Hence, the visual methods were irreplaceable while working with these hard-to-describe matters as well as for the consequent presentation of the research outcomes.

A few years ago the nuns of the order introduced a ban on photographs in the Home on the pretext of protecting human dignity. As one of the signs on the wall explains it: “…our patients are not animals”. While carrying out participant observation in the premises of the shelter as a volunteer, I had to go back to the old anthropological method of sketching inhabitants of the shelter and their daily life taking advantage of every break in service. The method came out being effective in many – often unexpected – ways. The work on the sketches gave me a reason to stay for a longer period focused in one direction, which usually doesn’t happen: the volunteers mainly spend their working time in constant movement. Thus I could pay attention to details and witness the slow pace of the patients’ life and their interactions.

Besides various side effects such as closer relations with nuns and other volunteers and involving them into my research the sketches provided me with a much more profound access to the values and the mental conditions of the disempowered patients of the Home. Brought to the shelter at the verge of death from streets of Kolkata they are predominantly silent and passive, subjected to the totality of religious charitable service of the sisters. In spite of multiple symbolical and structural borders which separated me (a western socially acknowledged volunteer) from them (nameless inhabitants of a human dumpster of Global South), we could establish a certain personal contact where sketching functioned as a universal mediator delivering multiple unclear but powerful messages through the linguistic, cultural and symbolic borders.

Clearly, when looking closely at the patients of the Home, processing the visual perceptions through my body and imprinting their images on paper, I functioned as a politically active subject objectifying their stripped bare life into a social product. Apparently, for these forsaken inhabitants of social bottom such recognition from a western stranger who embodied their image in an intimate act of representation often was an important experience. At some cases upon seeing their portraits usually apathetic people came out of their desperate indifference and showed strong emotions so irregular in their condition seeming almost frightening. Some of them found it important to write their names on the sketches. For instance, in one case a patient revealed his name for the first time since he got to the shelter asking to sign the portrait. Another one was asking me to let him see all the sketches whenever he saw me passing by with the journal in my hand, though I don’t know for certain what was that he found there for himself. Meanwhile, that might be another value of these brief visual reflections: they are tangible pieces of the field experience which bear imprints of various actors. They are points of attention where anxious gazes of the patients, the nuns and the volunteers cross, where all of them find essential meanings of their own.

A couple of words about the technical side: for sketching and the fieldnotes I used a moleskine-type A8 notebook with a waterproof cover (small enough to carry around behind the trouser belt) and a regular ‘Pilot’ gel pen. For the photo (also video) shooting I used a compact high-resolution mirrorless Ricoh GXR camera with a ‘normal’ 50mm lens, which provides a view angle close to that of a human eye.

*          Following a call from Virgin Mary Mother Teresa founded female monastic order “Missioners of Charity” in India in 1950. She started bringing critically ill people from the streets of Kolkata to an old shelter for Hindu pilgrims at the main Kali temple in 1952, which was the beginning of the Home for Dying Destitutes. Today the Kalighat Home gives place to almost a hundred of local people in critical health condition. About ten nuns and novices, a dozen of volunteers and a few paid workers provide daily care to the residents. A few patients die in the shelter every week. The Mission remains one of the most known symbols of religious charity in the world. For decades it has invoked severe discussions being an object of both furious criticism and blind veneration.



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