In Conversation with Soumya Sankar Bose

Interviewed by Timothy Frazier
Images by Soumya Sankar Bose

TF: How have things been in Kolkata during the Covid-19 pandemic? I recently read about cyclone Amphan hitting the area not long ago. I hope everyone and everything is okay!

SSB: Situation here is not good at all. Number of Corona positives are increasing every day. After Amphan, the situation has become more and more difficult. Don’t know when and how these tough times will end.

TF: How did you get into photography?

SSB: I was born and raised in Midnapore, a small town near the Bay of Bengal. I wasn’t interested in the course at all, but engineering helped me by bringing me to Kolkata, where I met new people, made friends, and saw that there is more to learn. When I was in my final year of engineering, I told my parents that I wished to study photography in Pathshala. I came to know about Pathshala during my 3rd year of engineering and enrolled myself for the same after submitting my portfolio.

TF: How has living and working in Kolkata influenced your photography? What is the art scene or photography scene like in East India?

SSB: Kolkata always had a rich art culture. During 1850-1860 the Bengali Renaissance happened, which was a cultural, social, intellectual and artistic movement in Bengal region in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent during the period of the British Indian Empire, from that time to still now we have got writers and poets like Nabin Kumar Singha, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Manik Bandopadhyay, Ashapoorna Devi, Syed Mujtaba Ali, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Nabarun Bhattacharya and many more. Later from the 1950’s, we also got some talented filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Rituparno Ghosh and many more. Our photography is also enriching and many young photographers from my generation are doing great work. Arko Datto, Rony Sen already have established themselves with their magnificent works. Swastik Pal, Nilargha Chatterjee, Ratul Chaudhury, Sushavan Nandy and Shantonu Dey are also making very interesting projects.

TF: Tell me about your project, Let's Sing an Old Song.

SSB: This work is based mainly on the Jatra artists, characters played by them and the psychology that drives them to be a part of this folk cult form.
I knew I had to work on this project when my uncle retired from the Jatra and joined a railway factory, hoping to do what he could not as an artist - earn a living . I began photographing artists who are now unemployed but were once gigantic figures of the Jatra.

SSB: Dating back to the 16th century, the Jatra is a famous folk theatre form of united Bengal (Bangladesh and West Bengal), employing dialogue, monologue, songs and instrumental music to tell stories .Jatra pala ,as the plays are called ,are enacted on wooden stages without any barriers between the actors and the audience, facilitating direct communication. The plots vary from Indian mythology and historical incidents to something more contemporary and based on social issues. The partition of India had a major impact on Jatra as artistes in the newly formed East-Pakistan (later Bangladesh), a Muslim majority country, discontinued to enact Hindu religious folktales such as Krishna lila, Devi thakurani, Kongso Bodh, Kaliadaman etc. On the other side of the border, artistes in west bengal stopped playing Muslim characters such as Siraj-ud-dullah, Shah jahan, Akbar etc. The advent of cinema and TV in the 60s and 70s blew a deadly blow to the theatre art form. In 2013 , over 600 Jatra companies employed over 2,00,000 people but their situation has come to force them to often offer free performances.

TF: Tell me about your project, Where the Birds Never Sing and the Marichjhapi massacre.

SSB: Where the Birds Never Sing is a body of work on the Marichjhapi massacre which refers to the forcible eviction in 1979 of Bangladeshi refugees on Marichjhapi Island in Sundarban, West Bengal, and the subsequent death of around thousands by police gunfire, starvation, and disease. After the partition of Bengal, in the year 1947 many lower caste Bengalis who fled East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and settled in West Bengal, were mostly upper and middle class. But the poor and the lower caste (“Namasudra”) refugees were aggressively sent to the “rocky inhospitable land” of Dandakaranya. In the year 1978, they started to arrive in Bengal in huge numbers particularly to settle in Sundarbans as proposed by the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti (UUS) leader. The then government: Left Front - discarded the refugees stating that they are not the citizens of West Bengal but India. In spite of all the scourges relating to their settlement, less than 50,000 of the refugees among them headed south and eventually settled in Marichjhapi, a place under the Reserve Forest Act. On 24 January 1979, the Government of West Bengal clamped prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the CrPC around the island of Marichjhapi. The police and the district administration started an economic blockade that turned out to be a failure. Then the government started forcible evacuation in May.

TF: If you could photograph anyone from any time era, who would it be and why?

SSB: My grandfather, I’ve heard many stories about him but he died long before I was born. I want to make his portrait.

TF: Outside of photography, what are you interested in?

SSB: I love to watch films regularly, also read books. I spend most of the time on books and films when I’m not working on photography.

TF: What are your plans for the future?

SSB: I’m working now on my first Book, which is going to be published next month and will be available from September. The book’s from my project, Where the Birds Never Sing. The interesting part in the book is that with the photographs I also have worked with archive materials and interviews with the survivors.

Born and raised in Midnapore, a small town near Kolkata, India. Soumya Sankar Bose was awarded a Magnum Foundation Social Justice Fellowship for his project, Full Moon on a dark night, and in 2018 received Magnum Foundations’ Migration and religion grant. Soumya’s other projects are also recipient of  The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art's Amol Vadehra Art Grant, The Agroecology Fund, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan's Five Million Incidents, Henry Luce Foundation's grant and India Foundation for the Arts grant. In 2019, I was one of the participants of World Press Photo’s Joop Swart Masterclass. Soumya now lives and works from Kolkata and is represented by Gallery Experimenter.

Soumya’s work has appeared in The New York Times, NPR, Granta, Indian Express, The Telegraph, BBC Online, Platform,, The Caravan, Conde Nast, etc... and has been shown in the Houston Center For Photography, Indian Art Fair, Sepia Eye(New York), Goethe-Institut, Experimenter, Delhi Photo Festival and many more.

To pre-order a copy of his book, please email: