Text and Photographs by Peter Turnley
The first foreign trip I ever made as a traveling photojournalist was to India to cover the funeral of Indira Gandhi and the sectarian violence that followed her assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. I had moved to Paris in 1978 and this first assignment in India would mark the beginning of a new way of life for me, one of almost constant travel to more than 90 countries these past 26 years. I will never forget the powerful and confusing culture shock of arriving at the old airport in New Delhi at a time when India was in a state of wrenching national upheaval. During the four days following Mrs. Gandhi’s death, more than a thousand Sikhs were killed in retaliatory violence. It is hard to find the words to describe all that this first visit to India represented for me. This was my first exposure to violence of such magnitude; to scenes of humanity so vast; to a sense of witnessing history and an opportunity to communicate something so important to others. It was one of my first exposures to the power and beauty of discovering a human connection to a people in a foreign land with great ostensible differences in culture and history to my own—but whose humanity my heart could identify with easily.
It was again death that brought me back to discover the amazing life of Calcutta many years later. On the evening of August 31st, 1997, I was lying in a hotel bed in Glasgow, Scotland, there on assignment for Newsweek, half awake and half asleep, when I heard a BBC television announcer report that Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales, had been involved in a serious car crash in Paris. Within an hour, her death was announced. During the next two weeks, I was exposed to two of the most highly charged international outpouring of human emotion one could imagine in such a short period of time. The morning after Lady Diana’s death, I returned home to Paris. That day, again on assignment for Newsweek, I photographed Prince Charles leaving a Paris hospital with her body to return for her funeral in London. I left immediately for London as well. On September 6th, 1997, more than three million onlookers and mourners in London, as well as a huge international public, observed her funeral. That day, while standing on a press stand in front of Westminster Abby, I made a photograph of Prince Charles, Princes William and Harry, and Lady Diana’s brother Earl Spencer observing her casket as it was prepared to be taken for burial. This photograph ran on the cover of Newsweek magazine the next week.
That evening, as I lay again in bed in a hotel room in London a bit dazed by all that I had experienced that day and the previous week, the phone rang. It was the foreign photo editor of Newsweek, who informed me that the previous day, Mother Theresa had passed away in Calcutta. I was asked if I could go to Calcutta to cover her funeral. Within a few days I left for the many hour flight to India, hours and distance, while great, that could not represent the magnitude of contrast of scenes of death and grieving of these two important international figures.
In many ways, the funeral of Mother Theresa was so representative of the profound nature of what I have felt when in Calcutta. The best way I can find to describe it would touch on the power of circumstance that involves a sense of humility, humbleness, faith, and an overwhelming celebration of the beauty of life. I have always loved the combination of organized chaos, sensuality, and childlike playfulness of Fellini films. I recall strongly, as I walked around the streets of Calcutta in the days after Mother Theresa’s funeral, having a sense that street life in Calcutta had much in common with an Indian version of a Fellini film—as in the works of the Italian filmmaker, at the heart of the matter is a vibrant celebration of living. I had always wanted to return to Calcutta to discover this reality further.
A few weeks ago I returned to Calcutta for the first time in more than 13 years, during the time of the annual Hindu religious festival, the Durja Pooja. I walked the streets of this amazing city for most of two weeks. While it was death that had brought me to India in the past, I had always wanted to come back, because what had stayed with me most on my previous visits was an ongoing, complex, and evolving celebration of life.
(All images © Peter Turnley/Corbis, 2010. All rights reserved)
56 Photographs by Peter Turnley
(Click the link below to see the rest of the portfolio images)
Photographs by Peter Turnley
All photos except the first six taken in Calcutta, India, in October, 2010.
© 2010 Peter Turnley/Corbis. All rights reserved
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.