One of the abiding stereotypes of India is of the country's traditional vegetarianism, of its reverence for cows, of a devout, pinched people living off rice and pulses. Such images may litter the global imagination of India, but they are at best exaggerations of a very different reality and history. A small percentage of Hindus (and an even smaller percentage of Indians) are vegetarian. Pork and beef have long been consumed in the subcontinent - the Buddha's last meal was pork; Brahmins ate beef at least as far back as the Vedic age three and half thousand years ago. Even today, the apparent vegetarianism of many Indians stems more from poverty and scarcity than adherence to atavistic belief.
Though mentioned by visitors in their accounts of the land in previous centuries, the image of India's "vegetarianism" owes its currency to the period of British rule when it fed into racialised notions of Indian peoples. Diet, or perceptions of diet, played a particularly poisonous and unfortunate role in separating Hindus from Muslims. The dark divisions bequeathed by the colonial era even extend into public understandings of food.
Fittingly perhaps, traditional British butchery techniques persist in India's markets. The photographer Jeet Chowdhury visited New Market in Kolkata, the old capital of British India, and studies its butchers in vivid and arresting detail. New Market is something of a misnomer, because the crumbling Gothic complex was first opened to its originally British patrons in 1874. It remains central to the life of the city, bustling with the commerce of Kolkatans of all stripes. New Market's red meat butchers are popular amongst all the city's citizens. Though stark, Chowdhury's pictures are steeped in historical and cultural significance. Seemingly pedestrian scenes are rendered almost magical, darkly encumbered and sinuous (a selection below).
Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 1" (Meat series), 2008
Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 2" (Meat series), 2008
Jeet Chowdhury, "Untitled 3" (Meat series), 2008