Bangladesh, Pakistan and India through a lens

A major new exhibition of photographs from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India leaves novelist Kamila Shamsie troubled, captivated ? and wanting more

Mohammad Arif Ali's photograph of rain in Lahore. Photograph: White Star, Karachi/Whitechapel gallery
Mohammad Arif Ali's photograph of rain in Lahore. Photograph: White Star, Karachi/Whitechapel gallery

So much for the post-national, globalised world. Looking through hundreds of photographs from?India,?Pakistan and?Bangladesh, which will go on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this month, I find myself unable to follow the curators’ lead. Wisely, they have chosen to group the images thematically, rather than according to nationality; but almost immediately I am looking hungrily for Pakistan (my homeland), largely ignoring India, and pausing longest at pictures of Bangladesh from 1971, the year in which it ceased to be East Pakistan.

It isn’t that I don’t find anything of interest in India or in photographs of it. But of the three nations, India has always been the most visually reproduced; many of the photographs taken there feel over-familiar. This is not the over-familiarity of a scene I’ve personally witnessed or inhabited: it is the compositions or the subject matter or sometimes the photograph itself that I feel I’ve seen time and time again. There is Gandhi stepping out of that train; there are the Mumbai boys leaping into a body of water on a hot day; there is the movie poster in the style of movie posters.

It is something of a surprise to find how intent I am on tracking down pictures of Pakistan. I have spent the greater part of my life there and will be returning shortly, but neither homesickness nor estrangement lie behind my wanting to see more. It is the role of photographs themselves in Pakistan that may serve as explanation. There is still very little appreciation of photo-graphy as an art form, so pictures tend to fall into three categories: private celebrations, news ? and cricket. I have seen countless pictures of weddings, of burning buses, of a fast bowler winding his arm over his shoulder at the end of his run-up. Life’s more quotidian details occur away from the lens, and so feel unacknowledged. Pakistan is a nation tremendously poor at acknowledging what goes on when it comes to individual lives, and bad at acknowledging the sweep of its own history. Great areas of the past and present remain away from the nation’s gaze.

If there is one period in history from which Pakistan most adamantly averts its eyes, it is 1971. That year, Pakistan ceased to be a nation with two wings, and the state of Bangladesh came into being. And so I turn to the Bangladeshi photographers in order to fix my gaze on that blood-soaked epoch. I don’t even realise I’m doing this, at first. I think I’m looking at a man’s head, cast in marble; the sculpture is cheek-down amid a cluster of stones, almost camouflaged by?them. Then I read the caption: “Dismembered head of an intellectual killed 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of Pakistani army. Bangladesh.” It is extraordinarily eerie, and sad. There are other pictures of that period, too. Many, if not all, will probably be familiar to anyone from Bangladesh; none are part?of Pakistan’s consciousness.

Pakistan’s erasure of its own muddled history is the subject of Bani Abidi’s witty series of photographs, The Ghost of Mohammad Bin Qasim. In?the nation’s attempt to create an official history, which focuses on Muslims in the subcontinent (rather than Pakistan’s geographical boundaries), the Arab general Bin Qasim (712 AD) was lauded for being the first Muslim to successfully lead a military campaign in India ? even though he did little to consolidate his position. In Abidi’s photographs, a man in Arab dress is shot at different locations in Karachi, including the mausoleum of?the nation’s secular founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The man is clearly Photoshopped in, deliberately so: he represents the attempt to graft a false history on to Pakistan, linking it to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.

While Abidi’s work asks the viewer to engage with history and politics, there are others that draw a more visceral response. Mohammad Arif Ali’s photograph of rain in Lahore captures the size and force of raindrops during the monsoons; the vivid colours at the edge of the frame also evoke how startlingly rinsed of dust the whole world looks. The boy darting out into the downpour, ahead of a line of traffic, his shalwar kameez plastered to his skin, is both lord of the world and a tiny creature, in danger of being crushed. It brings a familiar world vividly to mind. And yet, of course, exactly this scene could be played out ? and photographed ? in Delhi or Dhaka. It is foolish of me to think of it as quintessentially Pakistani. Sometimes these countries are three; sometimes one: the movement between three distinct nations and one?region is impossible to pin down.

Away from the pictures of 1971, the Bangladeshi images are both unfamiliar (Munem Wasif‘s picture of a Burmese worker struggling through bushes in Bangladesh) and familiar: notably, Abir Abdullah’s Women Working in Old Dhaka, which shows two women making chapatis together, though their positioning suggests distance rather than camaraderie. Is their lack of proximity a consequence of class or personality?

I turn back to the pictures of India and am almost immediately struck by Ram Rahman’s Young Wrestlers, Delhi: two boys, each wearing a pair of briefs. It is mystifying that I didn’t notice before how one of them stares assertively at the camera, his muscles relaxed, in the most casual of poses. The other’s eyes are unsure, his muscles tensed, he is trying to suck in his stomach and puff up his chest, and there is a rip, it seems, in his briefs. The boys are touching but it’s clear they aren’t friends ? not at the moment, at least. I worry for the tensed boy. He is going to lose his wrestling match; he is going to lose it badly.

And then there is Anay Mann’s picture of a breastfeeding woman with headphones over her ears: she looks wary, her head angled away from the camera. Is there someone in the room, just out of the camera’s reach? Or has she retreated into her own thoughts? And why is it that children’s toys can add such menace to a picture, as is the case with the yellow smiling object, its head bobbing, at the edge of the image?

I would see this exhibition differently if it were in Karachi. Or Mumbai. Or Dhaka. In London, I am so far removed from these landscapes I’m aware of the photographs’ “otherness”. But there’s also this: any kind of simultaneous engagement between these three nations, with so much in common and so much that sets them apart, is almost unheard of within the subcontinent itself. In Karachi, Dhaka or Mumbai, I would spend a very long time watching people look at these photographs. How we see ourselves; how we see each other ? these two questions would be politically charged where they are not here. Strange that, only 63 years after the Raj, London should seem such a historically neutral venue, comparatively speaking.

Chobi Mela III Ends

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Well, Chobi Mela III is coming to an end. One of the artists visiting Chobi Mela III was the celebrated Mexican photographer, Pedro Meyer. Pedro is also the editor of one of the most popular websites on photography <http://www.zonezero.com/> www.zonezero.com. It is apt that the editorial on zonezero today, the final day of Chobi Mela III, talks about his visit to the festival. Extracts from the editorial where Pedro talks both of his experience in Dhaka and his feelings about the festival follow. The full text is available at: http://www.zonezero.com/editorial/editorial.html
Bangladesh is according to economists, one of the poorest countries in the world. However, statistics tend to also obscure other aspects of life that seem to get lost in such descriptions as “among the poorest in the world”. I found that the people in Bangladesh are among the friendliest I have ever met any place, nothing to say that they must be the biggest enthusiast of having their picture taken that exists on the face of this earth. Probably the most efficient way of getting on with life is, how it is dealt with, in this very poor nation.
This event (Chobi Mela) here, is one of the largest of it’s kind in Asia. Bringing photographers and their work to the forefront during the two weeks of this festival. I have met photographers from all over the region, and I am sure that as this festival grows over the coming years, Bangladesh will increasingly become a major center for the development of photography. And what better place to have such an event than a city, where to such a large extent, photography is welcomed by the population.
Pedro Meyer left day before yesterday, Raghu Rai left yesterday, Ozcan Yurdalan left this morning, while Zhuang Wubin is still out there somewhere in Sylhet. The exhibitions by Morten Krogvold, Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski, Srinivas Kuruganti (Alliance Fran?aise), John Lambrichts (Goethe Insitut), Raghu Rai (Drik Gallery One), Darren Soh, Student?s of Morten?s workshop, Zhuang Wubin and Chris Yap (Drik Rooftop Gallery) all end today. We will arrange separate showings for ?Bridging East and West?, by Saudi Aramco World, which was held up by customs, and the exhibition by students of Barbara Stauss at a later date. Those of you who cannot make it to the galleries should give your eyes a feast at <http://www.chobimela.org/> www.chobimela.org.
Shahidul Alam

When The Mind Says Yes

It was in the foothills of the Himalayas that he was born. In a bullock cart amidst a snowstorm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh’s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, the frail old man shrunken with age, but with a heart as wide as the ocean, and a mind as young as the children that he loved, Golam Kasem, nicknamed Daddy, died at the tender age of 104. The single storied yellow building at 73 Indira Road, with its unkempt garden, was home not only to Bangladesh’s oldest photographer, but also the first Bengali Muslim short story writer.

Daddy looking out of his window at 73, Indira Road. Dhaka. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Daddy looking out of his window at 73, Indira Road. Dhaka. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Born on the 5th November 1894, Daddy lost his mother shortly after birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography the way many young men take up many things, to impress a young girl. She had promised to cook for him if he could develop a film that others had failed with. Kasem embarked with the same trait for disciplined research, that he maintained till his death. He went round the studios of Mednapur to find out the method that would win him his meal. He never talked of what the meal was like, but did describe how he used a hardner to prevent the emulsion from peeling off. Saving his bus fare to school to buy a brownie camera, he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. And importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, amidst old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918. The harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used.
Ship at port. 1925.
Ship at port. 1925. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Steam engine. B2 glass negative. Date unknown. Golam Kasem
Steam engine. B2 glass negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses. His spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. “Her first dance” is a delicate photograph of a child amidst a twirl, centre stage with her family as an audience. Strong portraits of his friend a teacher and the calm portrait of his grandmother belie the fact that he was an amateur, who took photographs for fun. He sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for Drik’s 1991 calendar.
First picture sold by Daddy. Intro for Drik 1991 calendar. Golam Kasem. 35mm negative. Date unknown.
First picture sold by Daddy. Intro for Drik 1991 calendar. 35mm negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World.

Boat. 120 negative. Date unknown. Golam Kasem.
Boat. 120 negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

The founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his house in Indira Road where the club was housed. Regular visitors included poet Sufia Kamal, painter Qamrul Hassan and photographer Manzoor Alam Beg. His letters were hand-written, each one numbered, and the envelopes often made of recycled newspapers or book wrappings. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club were unusual events. Photographers who would abstain from many local competitions would submit those small 4″ x 5″ prints. And they were proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme. And Daddy would always sing.
A house wife. 1927. B2 Glass negative. Golam Kasem
A house wife. 1927. B2 Glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

My colleague. Dhaka 1935. B2 glass negative. Golam Kasem
My colleague. Dhaka 1935. B2 glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

The room next to his bedroom was his darkroom. A red plastic bowl stuck under a light bulb, his safe light. He mixed his own chemicals from old tins of chemicals. Often I would get a SOS. The same neat handwriting, asking for potassium ferricyanide or some other chemical that he needed for his latest experiment. Photography was his passion. Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he kept his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor driven models, his preference was for a simple manual SLR, “preferably not too heavy” he would add with a mischievous smile. That is not to say he was shy of technology. I remember him holding up his thick glasses to read his first Email from his grandson in Canada. He asked me to come back the next day, and as I parked my bicycle by his rose garden, he was ready with his answer, again written in his neat handwriting. He was fascinated by Email and used it regularly, and curious about how the message would get through the ether.
My grandmother. Dhaka 1935. Golam Kasem.
My grandmother. Dhaka 1935. Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Sky and water. 1923, Midnapore. 4 x 5 sheet film. Golam Kasem
Sky and water. 1923, Midnapore. 4 x 5 sheet film. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

He was fiercely independent. He cooked his own meals, fed his dog and his cats and did his own shopping. Until recently, he would even go on his own to a house down the road and guide himself up the stairs to meet a lady friend whom he occasionally visited. Rarely would he talk of himself and it was only in passing conversation with the late Mr Nasiruddin that I discovered that Daddy was the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat, and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter, and short stories for general publication. His last manuscript, a simple manual on photography, sadly lies in my hands, unpublished. He had dearly wanted it printed before he died. The proofing was complete, the photographs selected, but ‘matters of consequence’ allowed other projects to take precedence. His last note, urging me on with the publication, will forever haunt me.
Two girls. Midnapore 1926. B2 glass negative. Golam Kasem
Two girls. Midnapore 1926. B2 glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. “My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins.” On Friday the 9th January 1998, the body finally said no and the mind took wings.
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