US couple follows ‘the box’, and their hearts, to Bengal

US couple follows ‘the box’, and their hearts, to Bengal

February 24, 2015

Twenty-seven years ago, Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral stumbled upon an ordinary shoebox containing 130 brown envelopes, each containing a 4” x 5” negative with a black-and-white print stapled to it. Little did the couple from Evanston in Chicago know that these photographs – taken 70 years ago in rural Bengal – would change their lives forever. Not only theirs, but also those of their Bengal collaborators, who, inspired by the couple's epic exploration in the state, have created a wide array of artistic expressions in their respective fields of art – cinema, painting, art installation, graphic novel, photography, collage and story scroll.

Their exhibition – ‘Following the Box’ – after its maiden show at Birla Academy in Kolkata, from February 14 to March 7, will travel to Chicago and New York. Jerri and Alan, who are in their mid-60s, have also done their own bit for the exhibition. Jerri has created a jigsaw puzzle with the photographs. “It is a mystery we are yet to unravel fully,” she said. Alan, on the other hand, is building an interesting darkroom.

The couple (Wikipedia)

The photographs – of temples, and scenes of rural life, like people doing laundry, fishing, threshing paddy, ploughing fields, playing musical instruments, rolling a paan – are marked by the camaraderie between the photographer and the subjects. “There appears to be a mutual respect, a cultural awareness unusual for the time. We sometimes wonder whether the photographer was an army doctor, which might explain the warmth. It is clear that this photographer had a respect for the people and the lifestyle,” said Jerri.

“The most interesting part of our journey is that we initially knew nothing about the photographs. Things manifested, as life does, on our way forward,” said Alan. “The photos appeared to have been taken in India. The only clue to their provenance was the notations someone had made on the bottom of each negative that read ‘10th PTU’ with a date, most either April 27 or May 3, 1945,” said Alan at their rented apartment near Deshapriya Park. This was quite a turbulent time in India, at the end of World War II, before independence and Partition, after a devastating famine.

Jerri and Alan with their photos, which they acquired in 1988 (Chicago Reader)

Though the photographs were lying with the couple for 25 years, their journey began only in 2011, when they first came to India as their son Max won a scholarship to study Indian classical music under santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma. “Guided by anthropologists at the University of Chicago, we made a preliminary research trip to India to begin to unravel the mystery,” said Jerri. They could, after much search, zero in on Kharagpur as the place captured in the photographs. “In the first trip, we could identify only one temple,” said the couple.

In 2013, they got a Fulbright-Nehru grant. “We spent five months in Kolkata and determined that the photographs were taken by a US soldier stationed at the Salua airfield, a once-secret American base near Kharagpur. Our research revealed that the photographer was associated with the 10th Photographic Technical Unit of the XX Bomber Command, which operated in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II,” said Jerri. The unit worked from 1942-45, preparing for a possible invasion of Japan. With the decision to drop the atomic bomb, the unit was dissolved.

Balaji Temple in 1945 and 2014 (Jerri Zbiral & Alan Teller/Chicago Reader)

The couple kept travelling in and around Kharagpur. “When we moved around with the album, we used to get mobbed. One day, a youth looked at one of the photos and said the subject was his great-grandfather. Next day, he brought a 90-year-old woman, the daughter-in-law of the man in the picture. We gave her the photo. She started weeping, holding it close to her heart. We were moved,” said Alan. They could identify all but two temples.

“Inspired by his work, we created new art pieces. We soon realised that contemporary Indian artists might be similarly enthralled. Perhaps we could open a dialogue, exploring the ways in which American and Indian perspectives might vary. In Kolkata we were fortunate to find 10 contemporary Indian artists in various disciplines who shared our excitement – Sanjeet Chowdhury, Prabir Purkayastha, Sarbajit Sen, Sunandini Banerjee, Amrita Sen, Alokananda Roy, Mamata Basak and Swarna Chitrakar. They interpreted these images in their own way, shaped by their personal artistic vision and by the cultural net that envelops us all,” said Alan.

“‘Following the Box’ is both a mystery story and a visual dialogue between Americans and Indians over time, ultimately a celebration of the power of art,” he said.

Text courtesy The Times of India

Lead image: Alan Teller’s blog

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