Rocket from the Tombs: Moyra Davey’s Walking with Nandita

The third issue of South as a State of Mind, which has been temporarily transformed into the publication for Documenta 14 and its focus on ‘Learning from Athens’, is devoted to the theme of ‘Hunger and Language’. Artist Moyra Davey begins her contribution to this issue (‘Walking with Nandita’) with her musing on which theme she’ll take up:

I am trying to think “language or hunger,” but I inevitably supplant hunger with eating, not eating, and shitting, all of which differ from hunger. Hunger is abstract, and my mind goes to things that are concrete.

As Davey writes restless notes as dispatches, from New York to Kolkata, on ideas of hunger, memory and death, in the languages of diaries, letters and photographs, there is one space that stays grounded: a cemetery in Kolkata, which she describes visiting as follows:

A group of visitors to the city, we meet up with our hired guide and walk west on South Park Street as the guide volubly narrates the history of its colonial-era department stores, cafés, banks, and bookstores. This is a preamble; the real destination is the South Park Street Cemetery, a truly haunted site of magnificent, crumbling tombs, and the final resting place of nineteenth-century British colonials. The monuments are extravagant structures in the style of Greek temples and other ruins; the largest and tallest memorial being a replica of an Egyptian pyramid. Surrounded by palm fronds, and appearing to emerge from a cloud of thick smoke, the tombs remind me of the jungle scenes in Apocalypse Now. The smoke is generated by the many small fires that dot the cemetery and lend it its distinctive smell of burning eucalyptus. Our guide is eager to point out the graves of women who died young and who were beautiful, but I’ve stopped listening and wander off on my own, taking in the sepulchral landscape, my eyes focused on the small screen of my camera set to “record.” 

On our way out, I’m given a booklet-guide to the cemetery, and it is here that I note the name of one of its residents: Thomas Prinsep, who died in 1830 of an equestrian accident. I immediately connect him to May and Thoby Prinsep, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, and to Julia Prinsep Jackson, the photographer’s niece and favorite model.

Later in her essay, Davey revisits the same placce, but this time via the eyes and camera of her friend Nandita:

Once I was back in New York, Nandita wrote to me that she was headed to Kolkata after a stay in Laos, where Shrinkhla had been volunteering at a pediatric clinic. I asked if she might go to the cemetery and try to locate Thomas Prinsep’s grave (Thomas, one of possibly eleven “Anglo-Indian” siblings, was the brother of Thoby, who married Cameron’s sister, Sara). Nandita easily located the monument and sent a digital photo, offering to go back with a medium format camera. The idea came to me that Nandita should put herself in the photo, à la Francesca Woodman. She said she never photographed herself and liked the idea of stepping outside her comfort zone. She went back with Shrinkhla to operate the bulky camera, a Mamiya 6 × 7, but managed to grab just a few photos before she was stopped by a custodian and told: “Only cell phone pictures allowed!”

Here are four of the photographs that accompany Davey’s essay – two she took herself and two taken by Nandita – all showing the monuments ‘in the style of Greek temples and other ruins’. But these images and these snippets I have brought to you from Ohio are mere ‘rockets from the tombs’ (Cleveland rocks!), and you should really ‘go to things that are concrete’ and feast your eyes on the whole of ‘Walking with Nandita’ on the South website here.

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