Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. Before Calcutta I would have laughed at such an idea. Before Calcutta I did not believe in evil, certainly not as a force separate from the actions of men. Before Calcutta I was a fool.
After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, pulled down the great buildings, broke up the stones, burned the rubble, and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again. That is not enough for Calcutta. Calcutta should be expunged. Before Calcutta I took part in marches against nuclear weapons. Now I dream of nuclear mushroom clouds rising above a city. I see buildings melt in lakes of glass. I see paved street flowing like rivers of lava and real rivers boiling away in great gouts of steam. I see human figures dancing like burning insects, like obscene praying mantises sputtering and bursting against a fiery red background of total destruction. The city is Calcutta. The dreams are not unpleasant. Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. (Simmons: The Song of Kali, 1997:1)
2.1 This quote is taken from the introduction of the novel "The Song of Kali" and the explicit reference Kali in the title is not coincidental. The fictional work of Dan Simmons is a perfect match with a literary trend describing Calcutta with deathly and negative qualities, by associating it with its patron divinity Kali. With the sentence 'a place too evil to be allowed to exist', Simmons articulates 'western' dismay with the city. Geoffrey Moorhouse's (1971:18), sociological essay on Calcutta describes the city as a " metropolitan nightmare " and clearly portrays it with dreamlike qualities as a grotesque and violent caricature. His deathly view of Calcutta compares it to the goddess Kali and says, " The very name of Calcutta is derived from a symbol of fear and evil " (Moorhouse, 1971: 20).There is some truth in his statement: if we take into account the most common interpretation[1], goddess Kali has provided the city's name: Calcutta comes from the old name Kali-khata, which means City Of Kali.

2.2 Kali, who has been Calcutta's patron divinity since its founding, is the Hindu goddess of death. She is portrayed with black skin[2], a garland of skulls round her neck, a sharp sickle in one hand and a beheaded figure in the other. She is the goddess known for claiming human sacrifice during nights of a new moon in the Bengal jungle. She features in novels by Salgari and Kipling, and in movies such as "The mystery of the Black Jungle" (1955) or "Black Devils of Kali" (1956) set in the jungle of Bengal where young blond women in colonial outfits were chased by the devotees of a the murderous goddess. The relation between the goddess and the city is articulated in numerous literary works: the murderous Kali and the life ridden overpopulated Calcutta mirror each other, Calcutta the urban body of the goddess, Kali its attitude, its psyche, with the city name bearing the assonance of her patron goddess. But who set the boundary of the imagery where Kali and Calcutta are metaphor for each other?

Historical Traces: The Temple of the Black Jungle

"There is no peace in Calcutta
blood calls at midnight"

Sukanta Bhattacharjee (Simmons, 1985: 178)
3.1 Delhi, Bombay and Madras were already fully developed cities when the British arrived in India. However, the territory chosen by Job Charnock - colonialist of the East India Company - for the foundation of Calcutta was nothing but bog, jungle and quicksand. In 1690, on a land inhabited nowadays by about 15 million people, there were only three small villages that were built near a salt lake and a small temple - Kalighat - dedicated to the Goddess Kali, who was very popular in Bengal.

3.2 The salt lake flooded frequently and the rotten fish left by the receding waters caused cholera and malaria. In the first fifty years of British settlement, a third of the colonists died for the poor sanitary conditions. Back home, in London, the newborn Calcutta went by the name of "Charnock's folly, the chance erected city" and there were puns on the assonance between Calcutta and Golgota - land of the skulls - (Chaudhuri, 1990).When the colonialists arrived in 1690, there was no resistance by the autochthonous population. The only forbidden territory was that of Kalighat, the most ancient temple of Kali in India. But this prohibition was anyway redundant, since the rituals in honour of the goddess were repellent for the colonialists. A thick jungle surrounded the temple and the main worship took place after midnight of a new moon and goats were sacrificed. Night worship was a strong taboo for the Christian cultural background of the colonialists. The relationship between the colonialists and Bengal was unusual compared to other well established cities in India. In terms of the colonizers' values Bengal was wilder and less civilized; the East of the Indian subcontinent was perceived as a particularly dangerous and unknown frontier. It was not as much a land of cities to be occupied as a land where cities had to be built.

3.3 This is the historical draft of two images that start to overlap: the unhealthy newborn Calcutta and goddess Kali, whose religious and cultural heart throbs in the Kalighat shrine. The decimation of the colonialists through disease is slowly associated with strange night rituals that take place in the temple. Frightening stories of memsahibs (white madams) sacrificed to the goddess begin to circulate. The novelist Kipling wrote a poem about Calcutta titled "The city of dreadful nights":

Thus the midday halt of Charnock - more's the pity!
grew a city
as the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed
so it spread
Chance-directed, chance-erected. Laid and built
on the silt
Palaces, poverty and pride-
Side by side:
and, above the pestilential town
death looked down.
(Kipling, 1890)

3.4 There is little positive literature on Calcutta as one of the most artistically and intellectually active cities in the world (Hannerz, 1983): at the time of Bengali Renaissance (1772-1857) the metropolis was avant-garde in civil rights with respect to India and Europe. When Calcutta was the capital of the British Empire from 1877 to 1911, it was the only city in South Asia with a university (Hannerz, 1983).

3.5 Although the seed of the "deathly city" had always been latent in Calcutta - given the interaction between 'western' presence, local cults and the inherent difficulties in building up a city anew - such imagery exploded only after Indian Independence in 1947. Calcutta, one of the most flourishing cities of South Asia at the time, was deeply influenced by the political events that led to the Partition between East and West Bengal. The city was suddenly separated from its geographic hinterland and millions of Hindu people who lived in Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, migrated to Calcutta. The sudden departure of the British after World War II had an enormous affect on the city's economy, since the colonialists were deeply involved in local trading activities. It is an oversimplification to call the British colonialists and Calcutta a colonial city, since the city developed and flourished through the interaction between local populations and newcomers. The city is moulded by this double presence: if Kali can be seen as Calcutta's symbolic mother, then the 'west' should not deny its paternity -or step motherhood - as we will see.

Methodology. Visualizing the City's Imagery: Methodological Notes

4.1 Of the many elements that contribute to a city's imagery, literary works are probably the most powerful. Written work - whether fiction, essays, or poems - are able to construct and circulate lasting images of a city, especially bestsellers such as Dominique Lapierre's[3]"The City of Joy". Writers choose their metaphors from a well of cultural images recognised by their readers.

4.2 As far as Kali is concerned, the rich symbolism associated with the goddess not only makes her a fruitful topos for the description of Calcutta, but also a good Weberian ideal-type with which to explore the city. Researching Kali is a way of gathering information about Calcutta.

4.3 After choosing Kali as the starting ideal-type, the next methodological step was the individualization of a list of analytical macro-categories that, as"sub-idealtypes", distinguished different ways in which Calcutta was associated with Kali. This first short list was sequentially elaborated into a shooting script: every analytical category was extended to a set of questions aimed at getting more detailed information about specific associations between the goddess and the city. Shooting scripts are a methodological tool adopted by grounded theory (Suchar, 1997) and which guide the production of images by limiting and directing the observation of the sociologist-photographer. Taking pictures is, of course, an extremely subjective process, but pictures can not be taken of just anything that is considered connected to the research, as Harper states: "I repeated as a mantra that pictures should be produced with an image in mind" (Harper, 1988: 54).Breaking the complexity of the imagery Kali/Calcutta into a set of sub-ideal types focused - at least partially - the production of images. It is much more useful to investigate the parallel between the goddess and the city by identifying the specific ways in which they are associated instead of attempting to portray the intricacy of their relation as a whole.

4.4 Six categories were constructed in the research, but this paper takes into account only two of them[4]: Kali in the City (A) and The City of Dreadful Nights (B). A literary excerpt introduces the sub-ideal type of a particular association between the city and the goddess for both categories. The short shooting script that follows contains the questions that guided the image capturing process.

Kali in the City

4.5 The truth is that everything popularly associated with Calcutta is highly unpleasant and sometimes very nasty indeed. The very name of Calcutta is derived from a symbol of fear and evil. Kali appears with devilish eyes, with a tongue dripping blood, with snakes entwined around her neck, or with a garland of skulls. She is Kali the terrible and she is propitiated daily with sacrifices, as well as with flowers. Calcutta, indeed, is a mighty terrible and frightening place today (Moorhouse, 1971: 19-20).

4.6 Calcutta resembles Kali in many ways. Kali the Terrible, worshipped by million of devotees, icon of fear and death, portrayed with a terrific glance, a necklace of skulls around her neck. Many murals proclaim the failure of the city:"there is no more hope here, nothing is left but anger". (Lapierre, 1984:178)

4.7 As Moorhouse and Lapierre claim, Calcutta resembles"Kali the Terrible". India is known for its polytheistic religion, so why is a single goddess taken as a metaphor for the whole city? How is Kali visible in the city? Which temples are the most visited in the city? Where are they located? This category was aimed at producing images that documented the location of Kali's icons and temples in the metropolis.

The City of Dreadful Nights

Kali puja announced, I saw Calcutta
descend on us. Three thousand slums,
usually rapt in themselves, crouched low
by walls or sewer water, now all
ran out, rampant, beneath the new moon,
the night and the goddess on their side.

I saw, in the holes of uncountable mouths,
the lacquered tongue of black Kali,
fluttered red. Heard her smack her lips:
I, numberless, form all the gutters
and drowned cellars, I,
set free, sickle-sharp I.
I show my tongue, I cross banks,
I abolish borders,
I make
an end.

They left (he and she) though the newspaper
Kept arriving, with reports of kerosene
Shortages, hockey goals, and Gurkha land,
and of waters that were gradually,
in Midnapore, gradually receding.

(The festival in honour of the black divinity,
said the Telegraph, took place
without incident.)
(Grass, 1989: 146)

4.8 Many literary works describe the dreadful new moon nights dedicated to the worship of the goddess (Grass, 1988; Kipling, 1890;Salgari, 1954;Simmons; 1997): the name of this section is taken in fact from the title of a short story written by Kipling. The poem above by Gunter Grass is an example of this because it describes the city during the night of Kali Puja: the most important new moon night for Kali's cult. "The festival in honour of the black divinity took place without incident," writes Grass, as if he wanted to underline that this is not what normally happens. What happens during Kali Puja? What is so frightening about it?

4.9 Taking images of Kali's icons, and filming the main temples of the goddess during Kali Puja involved a deep immersion into Calcutta's urban space. The "shooting scripts" channelled attention to potential images, providing an "image in mind" (Harper, 1988: 54) with which to navigate the city's space. Like a questionnaire, shooting scripts focus the attention of the photographer on certain aspects of social life, dismissing others that could also be equally relevant. The goal is not to produce objective representations of reality as much as find a way to partially channel subjectivity and attempt to build a narrative along with it. The following sections will provide a small selection of the images recorded along with the main observations they prompted.

Calcutta: The City of Kali

5.1 The sequence of photographs shown alongside portrays some of the icons of Kali taken in temples and public spaces around the city. Sound was added to sequences to help render the images in a more "phenomenological way" (Harper, 1988). Sound grounds the flow of images through sensory enhancement. The song was written by a local band called Bhoomi and it is a composition based on a traditional Bengali song and a live recording of street voices of Calcutta.

Click on the image. You may need to download QuickTime

5.2 These are the three main observations that were prompted by taking the pictures:

Kalighat/Dakshineswar: Kali Puja in the City

6.1 Kali Puja night is the most important new moon night of the year dedicated to the worship of Kali. All over the city local people build pandals, simulated temples made of bamboo erected especially for this celebration. Pandals are similar to some carnival-like installation, since each of them is built on a theme, a motive, or is inspired by a specific atmosphere. The two videos included below, portray the two most important temples of Kali in Calcutta and the pandals located in their immediate surroundings.

Click on the image. You may need to download QuickTime

Kalighat and Dakshineswar, in fact, are the two most frequented temples of Kali during the night of Kali Puja. Kalighat, mentioned before as the temple accommodating the most ancient icon of Kali, is located in the centre of the city and it is the most ancient devotional site in the metropolis. Dakshineswar, built in 1847 and located at the northern outskirts of the city, became famous for the activity of the priest Ramakrishna, a mystic and philosopher well known in India and the 'west'. It is interesting to note how the atmosphere of Kali Puja is totally different in the two temples and in their immediate surroundings.

6.2 As far as Kalighat is concerned, the pandals around the temple are inspired by a kitsch representation of death: the video shows an installation whose theme is an earthquake. There are plaster statues of dead bodies about to be burned in the incinerator chamber and fake funerary pyres. In the adjacent pandal there are some blinking Kali robots with skeletons similar to Halloween characters, which seem to mock death.The inside of the temple is chaotic, people push each other attempting to see the ancient icon of Kali, the atmosphere is charged and tense, there are people screaming and crying. During the night about 120 goats are guillotined and film recording is not allowed around the sacrificial area since it is considered the most sacred.

Click on the image. You may need to download QuickTime

6.3 The Kali Puja looks completely different at Dakshineswar. The first images included in the video portray a pandal built in the immediate surroundings of the temple. The structure and the interiors of the pandal are decorated in white. The black goddess stands elegantly in the middle, worshipped quietly by the people passing by. Inside the temple of Dakshineswar, big crowds of people are kept orderly in queues and the event is monitored by closed circuit surveillance that shows the rituals. No sacrifice has taken place in Dakshineswar since the end of the 19th century: people circle around the old sacrificial site and put candles and incense around the guillotine.

6.4 The different ways in which Kali Puja night is celebrated in the two temples depends partly on the different class status of the devotees. Kalighat attracts low caste people who cannot afford the trip to Dakshineswar, since the temple is situated in the northern outskirts of the city. Furthermore, middle class people feel uncomfortable going to Kalighat, since it has a reputation for being a chaotic setting where pickpockets thrive. Comparing the two temples, Kalighat seems to better embody the "deathly Kali/dreadful Calcutta" narrative. It is the only temple where goats are still sacrificed, people scream and shout in front of the icon of Kali, all the pandal installations around the sacred area are focused on the theme of death and the roads around the area are poorly lit. All these aspects are absent in Dakshineswar where people wait for hours to see the image of Kali in orderly queues. There are no other temples in Calcutta as peculiar as Kalighat: the oldest temple of the goddess is particularly well suited for the dark imagery of the city quoted in 'western' literature.

Kalighat/Hospital of the Dying: The Two Mothers Living Together

7.1 Producing images on Kali icons and recording the two main temples during the night of Kali Puja helped unveil the peculiarity of Kalighat as a historical, symbolical and cultural site in the city. Kalighat stood out in comparison with other locations for the Kali cult in the city as a place gifted for embodying particularly well the negative "Calcutta/Kali imagery" portrayed in the literary works. By narrowing the attention to Kalighat, an interesting contiguity became apparent: Mother Teresa's most famous centre of activity, The Hospital of the Dying, was back to back with goddess's Kali most ancient temple.

7.2 Mother Teresa's Mission was founded in 1947 and has become the most popular charity organization in the city. The Hospital of the Dying is the oldest and most famous centre of activity of the nun: it was established in rooms which belonged to Kalighat, in one of the worst neighbourhoods in the city, avoided by middle-class people for its proximity to the Red Light District of Calcutta. Why did Mother Teresa choose to establish her hospital right next to Kalighat in 1952? Although the nuns of the Mission claim that it was coincidence given a vacant area in Kalighat when Mother Teresa was looking for a site, the priests of the Kali temple give another interpretation: "Many dying people come to Kalighat to die under the eyes of Goddess Kali. Mother Teresa wanted to help the dying people as well, so this was the best place in Calcutta to find them" (Barbiani, 2002). Whether this was a conscious choice or just a coincidence is not the point: what is relevant that in 1952 the dark imagery of Calcutta starts to evolve in a new direction.

7.3 Kalighat represents a peculiar case of Kali cult, since it is the only place in the city where goat sacrifice still takes place and where the most ancient representation of the goddess is kept: if we start looking at Kali as a protective divinity, we see another religious figure right next to her, with similar qualities. It could be said that Mother Teresa occupied - symbolically and physically - the protective, maternal side of Kali, leaving the most ferocious traits of the goddess to the Kali temple. The two sides of Kali, the Protective Mother and the Destroyer, seem to be split into two places: Mother Teresa's Hospital of the Dying and the bloody ancient Kali-home (this is the meaning of the name Kalighat). Kalighat is perceived by local low-caste people as such as a unique location that they do not make a distinction between the "Kali-home" and Mother Teresa's Hospital of the Dying. Ironically, posters of Jesus with the lambs are sold side by side to images of Kali surrounded by skulls.

7.4 If Kalighat appears so significantly different from other temples of Kali around Calcutta, especially in comparison with the soothing, motherly, representation of the Kali of Dakshineswar, this may be partially related to Mother Teresa's presence in the neighbourhood.The bad reputation of Kalighat, of its temple and, in an extended sense, of Calcutta, soared in fact after 1952: the close proximity to the Hospital of the Dying, visited daily by 'western' volunteers and missionaries, made Kalighat a popular destination for religious tourism. The sacrifice of goats increased drastically to make the place more exotic for 'western' and Indian tourists alike and the temple management was taken over by a group of priests interested in gaining high profits from the flow of visitors. Erroneously, tourists take the area as the "best example of Calcutta", although local middle class people see it as the worst neighbourhood of the city.

The area surrounding the Hospital of the Dying is crowded with people asking for charity, in need for medical assistance and on the verge of death. The tourists, missionaries and voluntaries who go to Kalighat see a long line of people about to die and are confronted with the screams of the goats being constantly guillotined at the temple. As can be seen from the sequence of pictures above, both the Kali presence and catholic presence are somehow caricatured in the neighbourhood: at the exit of the Kalighat metro stop a huge mosaic with Mother Teresa greets visitors, while murals are painted with the image of Kali. There are no similar murals in any other part of Calcutta.

7.5 Kalighat could well be seen as a kind of post-modern urban setting, where the icons of the two goddesses of the city compete to attract visitors by being symbolically complementary: the dark Kali and the luminous Mother Teresa are cemented as a couple in the neighbourhood. This association may have not been as strong, if goddess Kali had not been so embedded in Calcutta's religious life. It should be remembered that Kali is not just one of the many goddesses worshiped in the city, but the most important. Mother Teresa built her hospital in the heart of the city's cultural and religious centre and it is interesting to note how this particular hospital was focused on welcoming terminally ill patients and not just the sick. This particular intersection on the theme of death becomes relevant knowing Kalighat's history and Kali's symbolism. Although there are many other Mother Teresa missions around Calcutta, the Hospital of the Dying is still a favourite destination for tourists who want to see the first step of the nun's organization and, "incidentally", they have a chance to see the "worst" of Calcutta as well. If Kalighat can be seen as the place that best embodies the narrative of the"nightmarish Calcutta", where goats are slain and people come to die, it should also be noticed that a 'western' presence is (still) revealed (in new form) in its urban core[6]


As the work progresses the photographer will be alert for the visual embodiment of his ideas, for images that contain and communicate the understanding he is developing. His theories will help him to photograph what he might have otherwise ignored. Simultaneously he will let what he finds in his photographs direct his theory building, the pictures and ideas becoming closer and closer approximations of one another (Becker, 1974: 15).

7.6 When the pictures and the ideas become "closer and closer approximations of one another" (Becker, 1974: 15), it becomes difficult to understand which came first. Was the picture taken because there was already a concept in mind or were the pictures themselves inspiring the concept? Woodwiss, (2001) argues there is no way out of this tautology: using images in social research necessarily becomes a recursive process and photographs cannot be anything more than illustrations of some aspects of social reality. My work suggests otherwise: photographic and video images are a point of access to deep connections as well as an investigative strategy. Images also have other qualities that make them a precious tool in enlivening social research: by looking for the "visual embodiments of ideas" (Becker, 1974: 15), the photographer-sociologist is deeply grounded in the present and in its spatial, sensory details. When a shooting script is constructed, attention is drawn to specific aspects of the subject under investigation and it may develop a relevance it did not otherwise have.

7.7 Using a still or video camera in sociological research is also similar to taking notes: but it is also more than this. Taking a picture, like writing an essay, gives relevance to the subject, or aspects of the subject, under investigation, but it is quite unlikely that all of the images will end up being significant. Selecting the pictures after they have been made is a further step in organizing their meaning. What happens, in this tautological process, is that pictures (as ideas) start to "make sense" with each other, and they acquire a meaning that is bigger than the sum of the parts. They do not only fit well in sequences, but they become "sentences" as well. The sociologist/photographer feels the need for a specific sequence of images as much as the need for a specific paragraph or sentence.

7.8 Just as words are versatile and can be used in different ways, so images also play different roles. The videos included in this paper are just a small selection of many hours of shooting. Through editing I managed to construct a sequence of images that worked with - but which cannot be simply reduced to - the concepts that I wanted to convey. The edited images are not "proof" of what was happening in the two temples, but a construction focused on communicating specific concepts.

7.9 In a different, but also theoretically similar way, the two sequences of images inserted in the sections The imagery Kali/Calcutta (1.) and Kalighat/Hospital of the Dying (6.) could be considered counterparts to the written text. In the first section, images of a crowded, dirty and populated Calcutta were included, whereas the other showed the "visual signs" of the cohabitation between Kali and Mother Teresa: the murals, the mosaic, a goat about to be slain, Christ's cross at the same height of the cupola of the Kali temple. These specific illustrations are the result of a selective process, and they would not have made much sense if they had been included at the beginning of the paper.

7.10 Looking at Kalighat as a place where local and colonial culture are still constructing the negative association between goddess and city is, of course, an interpretation. But it is an interpretation that is the result of a long process of observation of different places in the city: looking at Kalighat as the location where the Kali/Calcutta narrative is embodied is a way of reading a literary metaphor in the urban space. Similar findings could have resulted from an analysis of the city's history: the early events of Calcutta's foundation are, in fact, exemplary for the further development of the symbolic importance of Kalighat. Such an analysis, however, would not have said anything useful about the role played by Kalighat today. Producing images of the two main temples of the goddess made this role relevant: it would be difficult to imagine a "Hospital of the Dying" built next to Dakshineswar. In is not a coincidence if Kalighat shocks 'western' tourists, while Dakshineswar pleasantly impresses them. It is hard to imagine Kali as a slayer goddess by visiting the new temple of the goddess, but it is easy to be distressed by the many goats slain in the oldest abode.

7.11 What is the role of Mother Teresa in all this? The Hospital of the Dying was founded few years after Indian Independence in 1947. Compared to other Indian cities, Calcutta remained an easy destination for writers and missionaries because it was already conceived as open to a 'western' presence.

7.12 The aim of this paper is not to impute Calcutta's bad reputation to Mother Teresa's outpost, but rather to show how the Hospital of the Dying was able to fit into a symbolically rich location and thrive through it. The Kalighat neighbourhood could be seen, in a way, as a goffmanian theatre where the negative reputation of the city is being enacted and performed. Calcutta is easy to despise, because it is a known territory: by making a caricature of the negative aspects of the city, the 'west' denies its long-lasting presence in it and its deep knowledge of the city's symbolic landscape.

7.13 Making visible certain aspects of the negative reputation of the city is useful, because the imagination can open towards new views of the city's symbolic landscape. To conclude this visual exploration, there is no better way than to retread to a literary portray of Calcutta. The following quote, taken from a novel by a local author, acquires a particular meaning after this venture in Calcutta's dark symbolic landscape:

Calcutta has acquired a persona that distinguishes her from all other cities in India. It is a city of Chiaroscuro, a twilight city. It is a split psyche: both of the city and the individual. There is an uncomfortable coexistence of conflicting qualities: the tragic and the comic, the rational and the mystic, the beautiful and the ugly (Sen 1990: 50).