Insights From the Past: Drawing Parallels with a Bengali Communications School

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Insights From the Past: Drawing Parallels with a Bengali Communications School

Chitrabani, founder, Gaston Roberge
Chitrabani is an Indian photography and film training centre. Founded in the 1960s, it has remained faithful to its focus on using visual media for social good since then. This is a brief tale of Chitrabani’s conception, revealing how its founder used positive representations of people in very poor areas to change perceptions of them and to raise their profiles. This story resonates strongly with us at Communication for Development Ltd (CfD), since our work is underpinned by very similar values. We hope you’ll enjoy it.

Chitrabani, founder, Gaston Roberge
Chitrabani’s founder, Father Gaston Roberge, was fascinated by the potential of visual media to amplify people’s voices and make them heard.
In the 1960s, a young Jesuit priest arrived in Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it is known today). Father Gaston Roberge was ripe with inspiration, having just completed a Masters’ degree in Theatre Arts, which included study of film. The city that greeted him was a very different Calcutta to the one that exists today, but one element has remained much the same: the presence of sprawling slums, home to the city’s poorest people.

Roberge was fascinated by the potential of visual media to change people’s lives. The young Quebecer aspired to bring visual media to the marginalised communities living in Calcutta’s shanty towns, but rather than just consuming spoon-fed, irrelevant media from other countries, he wanted these people to have access to means of producing visual media for themselves. So he founded Chitrabani, meaning ‘picture’ or ‘voice’ in Bengali.

Today, organisations like PhotoVoice and projects that provide people with basic cameras and some training in photography skills are achieving fascinating results in enabling the marginalised to speak out and be heard. Back in the sixties, Roberge wanted similarly to give a voice to the voiceless, and considered how slum children’s own photography could help accomplish this. He quickly discovered that this approach would not work for his purposes, though. Ultimately, he instead began to train local photographers from the area in which he was working. Soon he’d developed a team that was very capable of depicting everyday life in the slums.
Chitrabani, logo, communication for development, India
Chitrabani’s logo features several hands. Perhaps this is symbolic of Roberge’s desire to forge a connection between Calcutta’s citizens and its marginalised slum dwellers.
In the India of that time, a college dedicated purely to film and photography studies was an unusual thing; one that focused on using visual mediums for achieving social change was especially unique. Chitrabani attracted many students, which gave it momentum. Despite its success, however, Roberge had still not achieved exactly what he’d wished for the slum dwellers.

Why? Because they themselves did not want to appear in photographs. The slum communities knew that they were frowned upon, and very much on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Why would they want that shame to be captured on camera? In an effort to dispel their fears, Roberge’s team began capturing positive images of people learning, playing, washing and looking after themselves as best they could. This was a turning point. Back in the college’s darkroom, negatives were developed straightaway and the resulting images were taken back to the slums. People were delighted to see themselves in a new light. Suddenly, Chitrabani’s photographers became popular and community members were queuing up to be photographed.

In 1978, Chitrabani held its first exhibition and the results were both encouraging and enlightening. Calcutta’s audiences could connect with the marginalised communities, as they saw basic human similarities they could relate to in their beautiful images. Many commented that these people were really not so different! As Wendy Quarry concludes after interviewing Roberge, what was important was not just giving these people a voice, but finding a means to enable others to hear that voice.
Chitrabani, sound studio, students, film, communication for development, India
Chitrabani’s training centre teaches its students to become responsible communicators, and to ensure that everyone benefits from media. Here, they can produce film, photography, radio broadcasts and posters.
At CfD, we sense a variety of synergies with Chitrabani’s founding story. Like that organisation, we also seek out photographers and videographers from the Global South who already have an understanding of the places and cultures they document. We mentor these individuals in interview skills to ensure that they know how to form an effective, balanced and respectful connection with the communities they work among. Most importantly, depicting people in a positive light, as engaged and capable community members, ultimately our equals, has been a cornerstone of our approach since the beginning. It’s a delight to share how Chitrabani has been pioneering this approach since the sixties. We strive to learn from and collaborate with like-minded organisations like Chitrabani, so please get in touch if you’re part of one!

This story is based on Wendy Quarry’s interview with Father Gaston Roberge, as published in her book Communication for Another Development: Listening Before Telling. The book, co-authored by Ricardo Ramirez, hails Roberge as a ‘champion’ within the field of communication for development.

Chitrabani’s website is not currently operational, but it does have a Facebook page. Roberge has also authored several books.