India: A photography tour that takes you inside the heart of Kolkata

The locals at the Kolkata flower market love me. They smile as they greet me, they ask where I'm from – then they completely ignore me as I snap shots of them at work. I capture them dwarfed by huge piles of jasmine, fingers flying as they string the blooms together. I also capture them lifting huge poles laden with heavy ropes of marigold wreaths onto their shoulders.

It's not really me that they love, of course, it's Manjit. Manjit Singh, photographer and guide, is well-known in all of Kolkata's most scenic – and fragrant – locations. He has spent countless hours here, chatting with locals and capturing them on film. Whenever he brings guests on one of his photography tours, the locals greet them happily and then ignore them, which is exactly what every photographer wants. I'm free to wander around, taking shots of people going about their daily business.

Later that day, when Manjit and I are relaxing over a cup of chai at his favourite roadside stall – having chatted with the old lady who runs it and admired her traditional jewellery – Singh tells me I'm not the first to make that observation. "What I can give you is invisibility," he says. "I've been shooting in some of these areas for 15 years, the people are all used to me."

Singh gives his guests a lot more than that. Although this professional photographer bills his tours as photography tours, and is happy to give shooting advice as required, what Singh really loves doing is giving his guests insights into the city that he loves.

"Being a photographer who is in love with the city, I was unhappy with the way that Kolkata was being portrayed in a cliched way, as a dark place full of slums. That wasn't the city that I was experiencing," Singh says. His tours are less about capturing the perfect shot and more about showcasing the city's fascinating neighbourhoods.

"If you go the whole tour without taking a single photo, that's fine too," he says. "I want you to get under the skin of Kolkata, to have an emotional connection with the place."

You can choose which neighbourhood you want to explore: the historic heart of the city, with its colonial grandeur, or one of the bustling neighbourhoods where Muslims and Hindus, Jews and Chinese, have lived side by side for centuries. When Singh learns that I'm interested in architecture, we detour through the city's southern suburbs so that I can admire the area's outstanding art deco architecture.

In the course of one afternoon, we visit ornate Jewish synagogues and simple Chinese temples, stop for traditional treats at a 150-year-old sweet shop and munch perfectly-spiced samosas at a street stall. My most vivid memories, however, are the people we meet, from the young men bewildered at my (to them) extraordinary height to the old man who speaks only Hindi but somehow pegs me as German just by looking at me. It's an unforced form of interaction that can be hard to find in a foreign country.

"The fact that no one treats us as a moving purse relaxes my guests," Singh says. "A lot of people drop their defences very early on in the tour. They stop and talk and interact with people, and that's what they remember most."

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TRIP NOTES

Ute Junker travelled with the assistance of Banyan Tours.

MORE

traveller.com.au/india

incredibleindia.org

FLY

Airlines including Qatar Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines offer one-stop flights to Calcutta. See qatarairways.comqantas.comsingaporeair.com

TOUR

Banyan Tours offers bespoke Kolkata packages including two days of specialist guiding, transport and a stay at the Oberoi Grand hotel from around $2060 a person twin share. See banyantours.com

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