As the second World War raged on in parts of Europe, an unidentified US soldier, stationed in rural West Bengal took his press camera set out on a journey to capture the sights of the then Bengal countryside. Almost 42 years later, in 1990 a US-based couple Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral - was pleasantly surprised to find the pictures in a box they had brought from a yard sale. "27 years ago a collector friend passed away and his widow was selling a lot of his photos. Stuffed under a couch we found a shoe box with lot of brown paper envelopes filled with negatives and photographs all from India. We purchased it from her for USD 20, and then forgot about it," says Teller. The Illinois-based couple which has a combined background in photography, anthropology, history and design during a class in Chicago tasked one of Teller's students to research the photographs and found out that were all from Bengal. "Our son, got a chance to study music under Pandit Shivkumar Sharma in Mumbai and we tagged along to see India and because we were curious to see the country of origin of the photographs," says Teller. The couple applied for and received a Fullbright scholarship to research the photos and presently is showcasing the photographs in an exhibition titled "Following the Box" at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Art (IGNCA). The display is accompanied by works created by 12 contemporary artists most of them with roots in Bengal who have been inspired by the vintage photographs. "The photographs are so evocative and since we are artists too we have used the photographs in our own artworks.
Besides these other artists have been inspired to make their own art," says Zbrial.
While artist Sunandini Banerjee made some beautiful collages out of it another artist Amritah Sen turned the photographs into colorful post cards. "These pictures immediately reminded me of my family album, restored with care and love by my parents," says Sen. Another artist Prabir Purkayastha even paid a visit to the US so that he could "bring the soldier to life," assuming the anonymous photographer as a guy from Roswell in Texas, and naming him John Millett. "My father was in army and when I saw those pictures I said, 'Oh I can relate to them,'" says Purkayastha. Sanjeet Chowdhury, Sarbajit Sen, Chhatrapati Dutta, Alakananda Nag are some of the other artists who have contributed to the exhibition. "70 years ago a white US soldier had a striking view of India and now artists from India are interpreting those photographs to make paintings, comic books graphics and other inspired artworks," says Teller. The couple says it plans to set up an exhibition in Mumbai and would even like to have it in Bangladesh. "We also need to raise funds and we are looking to rope in some corporates,"says Zbiral. However, she adds they are yet to find one. The identity of the photographer, continues to be an enigma. The exhibition is scheduled to run till January 31.