My Grandfather’s Diary

Embracing the Other

Shahidul Alam’s new show combats Islamophobia, extremism: The Punch

Interview by Ina Puri

For celebrated Bangladeshi photographer, writer and curator Shahidul Alam, a just world is a plural space where many thoughts can coexist. His latest show, Embracing the Other, opens in Dhaka on May 8

“If you’re not making certain people uncomfortable by your presence, you are probably doing something wrong.” Bangladesh’s best-known photographer, writer and curator Shahidul Alam, 61, has lived by that adage, which, by and large, sums up why he does what he does.

For Alam, who has been actively involved in the movement for democracy in Bangladesh for over three decades, photojournalism was a corollary of being an activist on the streets, seeking to see himself on the edge, so as to constantly “feel the heat”, questioning, going beyond the obvious, not settling  for safe options.

Shahidul Alam in the thick of things at anti government protest. Photo: Md. Mainuddin

In Bangladesh, Alam is credited with many “firsts”: Among other things, he set up Drik Picture Library, the country’s first picture agency, in 1989; Pathshala, its first photo school in 1998; and the first email network in the country in 1994. He also founded the first photo festival in Asia, Chobi Mela, in 2000. Continue reading “Embracing the Other”

The spirit of a ghostly fabric

Rare depiction of terracotta weaver. Terracotta art was at its peak from 4th - 8th century. Courtesy of Ruby Ghuznavi, Dhaka. Bangladesh. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Rare depiction of terracotta weaver. Terracotta art was at its peak from 4th – 8th century. Courtesy of Ruby Ghuznavi, Dhaka. Bangladesh. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Having heard Saif speak of muslin over the last three years, I had gained some knowledge, albeit second hand. Going out filming with him to museums, arboretums and libraries, I had met some of the world’s leading experts. Lived part of the history. A surprise awaited me. It is not a book written by an expert, but a labour of love, written by a hungry enthusiast, not yet jaded by the weight of authority. It has all the facts. The rigour of research. The scholarly precision. The concern for one’s fellow human. Continue reading “The spirit of a ghostly fabric”

Muslin show goes ahead

As things happen in this wonderful country of ours. Problems come up and solutions emerge. Everything is now under control. We are working flat out and a fabulous show is on offer!
Just held the first copy of the book ‘Muslin, Our Story’ in my hand and the book looks absolutely fabulous! We only have a few copies for the opening, but the rest are arriving by ship. Book your copies now. They are selling like hot cakes. Boy do we have a show on our hands!

Just saw the first proof copy of the book 'Muslin Our Story' and it looks stunning!
Just saw the first proof copy of the book ‘Muslin Our Story’ and it looks stunning!

Golam Kasem Daddy Letters: 1

73, Indira Road
Dhaka
8. 9. 97
Dear Dr. Alam,
I am in difficulty. I am unwell, but I am alone and there is none to help me. I am having slight attack of fever and am very weak. Many thanks for inviting me at Drik function, but I am very sorry I am unable to attend due to my illness. However, I hope the function will be successful. Thanks for 2 doorscreens, and many thanks to your mother for food. Manuscript for my photobook is ready for you. Please take it at your convenience.
Yours Sincerely,
Daddy

Hand written letter by Golam Kasem Daddy, when he was 103.
One of the last hand?written letters to me by Golam Kasem Daddy, written when he was 103. He passed away on the 9th January 1998./Drik Archives

Other letters by Daddy:
When the mind says yes:

The Statesman, and the Photographer

The statesman, and the photographer

by Shahidul Alam

Photographer Rashid Talukder and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (photographer unknown)/Drik archives

LOOKING at this photograph, one of the few in our library where the photographer is unknown, I realise how times have changed. This is the undisputed leader of a country with his arms across the shoulder of a newspaper photographer not known for being affiliated to his party.

No security guards, no party goons, no chamchas. Both men are at ease with the situation. The smiles, the casual gait, Rashid Bhai with his camera dangling, a single prime lens. Not even a camera bag (and this was the time of film when you only had 36 exposures). How times have changed. Sure, we live in a more security conscious world, but the distance between the leaders of today, and the people, isn’t simply about changed situations, it is about changed attitudes. Today the proximity between leaders and the people surrounding them has much more to do with business and benefits, than with humility and largesse. There was much more give and much less take.

Rashid Bhai was doing poorly and I was keen that the incredible history this talented photographer had documented over the years should not be lost. Initially we commissioned Momena Jalil and Moinul Hassan Tapu to get the information associated with the photographs, mostly kept in a large plastic bag in Rashid Bhai’s house. Tapu sat at Rashid Bhai’s bedside and meticulously wrote down what he could salvage from the photographer’s fading memory. Rashid Bhai was slipping away, and rather than tax him further with what was for him becoming a laborious task, we decided to scan the key photographs, project them and have him talk over them.

Even with this failing health, Rashid Bhai was still the master storyteller. His ready wit, candour and inimitable charm surfaced throughout the ‘interview’. One of the stories he said that day said a lot about the friendship that these two men shared.

It was the wedding of Sheikh Kamal (Bangabandhu’s son). Rashid Bhai was going about doing his paparazzi stuff. Like any other mother at her son’s wedding day, Begum Mujib was trying to bring some sort of order into the chaos. The paparazzi got in the way and the mother told him off. This was when the Bangali trait of Rashid Bhai surfaced. He was miffed, and decided he would not join the wedding dinner. Word got to Bangabandhu and he came to appease him, but the photographer would not relent. He was hurt and that was that. It was pure obhiman, a Bangla word difficult to translate. A hurt that only someone you are especially close to can cause. This had nothing to do with the status of a head of state, or his wife, or a photographer going about his job. It was maan/obhiman and all about relationships.

No less a Bangali Mujib responded: tahole ami o khabo na. tui ki chaish amar cheler biyete ami na khai? OK, so I too won’t eat. Is that what you want, that I not eat at my son’s wedding? Rashid Bhai relented. Food was brought. The two men sat side by side and ate. The use of the word ‘tui’ which Mujib often used, is one of extreme familiarity with multiple connotations. It can denote status, hierarchy and familiarity, and shifts with situations. Mujib was famous for the way he used it. Seamlessly switching between tuitumi and apni as needed, and with marvellous ease.

It was this trait of the man that we have forgotten. Mujib was a great leader and a great politician. Like many revolutionaries who became statesmen, he too made mistakes. Some significant. In the end, he was a man, with human triumphs and failings. In our polarized political environment, we have either deified or demonised the leader and the man has never been able to surface. His humility, his closeness with the people, his ability to be ordinary, was perhaps his greatest strength. A strength we have not recognised and certainly not emulated.

I have noticed this in other great leaders. Nelson Mandela had once changed the date of a photo shoot, because I had not been able to arrive in time to Johannesburg. It was a long trip from Mexico City and on the 8th of July 2009, when I was meant to have been at his home in Jo’burg, I was still stuck in Dubai. Photographer friends have told me of how he cut short his speech, so the photographers standing in the rain could get to dry shelter. Stories of Mujib, taking time off from important meetings because a child wanted to meet him, is legendary. In the complex political quagmires they operated in, these great men have sometimes stumbled. We need to recognise the slips, analyse the reasons and learn from the mistakes, so they are never repeated. In the end it is their humanity that will surface. That remains their endearing trait.

The statesman and the photographer were both at the pinnacle of their craft. They were also great friends and fine human beings, each having an abiding respect for the other. The latter trait we seem to have forgotten.

Shahidul Alam is a photographer and social activist. He is the founder of Drik.

Originally published as an Op-Ed in The New

Related links:

The light we failed to see

Winner of Chobi Mela Lifetime Achievement Award

Rare and Unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives

The iconic Parliament Building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn. Site of the landmark exhibition on rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives on Rashid Talukder. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The iconic Parliament Building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn. Site of the landmark exhibition on rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from the Drik archives on Rashid Talukder. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

A self-taught photographer with a strong sense of humour Rashid Talukder received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chobi Mela international photography festival in Dhaka, in 2006. His images of the war of liberation of Bangladesh and the political events leading up to it, are the most comprehensive visual documentation of Bangladesh’s political history on record. Rashid Talukder handed over his entire collection of negatives to the Drik Picture Library in Dhaka before he passed away.
With support from Drik’s long standing partner, the Prince Claus Fund Drik has been scanning the Talukder archives of over 165,000 original negatives. The archives contain rare images, many of them never previously seen. These include major political events, everyday life and photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh, whom Talukder was especially close to. The photographs show Mujib, not only as a statesman, but also as someone close to his people. There are also private and intimate moments which give insights not only to the public figure, but also to the individual.

Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with girl scouts. Photo: Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World
Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with girl scouts. Photo: Rashid Talukder/Drik/Majority World

While Talukder is virtually unknown outside of Bangladesh, he was one of the foremost chroniclers of the struggle for independence, photographing its origins in the language movement of the 1950s and continuing through the war’s aftermath.


Now hailed as a founding father of Bangladeshi photojournalism, Mr. Talukder made some of the most important images of the war, which by some estimates claimed one million lives and turned 10 million of his countrymen into refugees. He also documented everyday life in Bangladesh during his 46-year career, during which he worked for the newspapers The Daily Sangbad and The Daily Ittefaq. Through an initiative of the new mayor of Dhaka North Annisul Huq, and his council members, a massive outdoor exhibition has been arranged at the iconic parliament building of Bangladesh, designed by Louis Kahn, based largely on the Drik archives. Special access has also been arranged for the general public where even rickshas will be allowed into the parliament complex.
Commemorating the 40th death anniversary of the father of the nation, this provides a rare opportunity for visitors not only to see these previously unseen photographs, but also visit this landmark building, considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the 20th century.

Invitation to the exhibition of rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, largely based on the archives of Drik Picture Library
Invitation to the exhibition of rare and largely unseen photographs of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, largely based on the archives of Drik Picture Library

The honourable Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, will inaugurate the exhibition today the 13th August 2015 at 5:00 pm.

ABOUT AFGHAN BOX CAMERA PHOTOGRAPHY: KAMRA-E-FAOREE

1 kamra e faoree
The Afghan Box Camera is a simple box-shaped wooden camera traditionally used by photographers working from a street pitch, who produce, by-and-large, instant identity portraits (aks: ???) for their clients. In Dari the camera is known as?kamra-e-faoree ().which means ‘instant camera’. It’s also less frequently called kamra-e-faoree-e-chobi (instant wooden camera) or kamra-e-chobi (wooden camera). In Pashtu the camera is sometimes referred to as da lastunri kamra (sleeve camera: ??????? ?????) because of the sleeve on the side of the camera that photographers insert their arm into.
2 shooting sketch Continue reading “ABOUT AFGHAN BOX CAMERA PHOTOGRAPHY: KAMRA-E-FAOREE”

The Zaidi Studio

Zaidis Photographers, Masson Narsingdas Building, The Mall, Lahore in 1959
Photo by: Shahid Zaidi (Zaidis Photographers)


Dyal Singh Building, The Mall – Lahore c. 1959
The story of Zaidis Photographers starts in 1904, when two brothers, Syed Wazir Ali Zaidi and Syed Nazir Ali Zaidi, formerly students of Mayo School of Arts (now NCA) left Lahore in search of improving their photographic skills and become portrait painters and photographers. Continue reading “The Zaidi Studio”

Shahbag Square — why we Pakistanis don?t know and don’t care

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

Published: February 15, 2013

The writer retired as professor of physics from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad

Shahbag Square — where’s that? Abdul Kader Mullah — who’s he?

A bunch of university students in Islamabad, with whom I was informally conversing yesterday, hadn’t heard of either. Of course, they knew of Tahrir Square and Afzal Guru’s recent execution. But they showed little interest upon learning that Shahbag Square was in Dhaka and that, as we spoke, the city was seething with protest. Between 100,000 to 500,000 Bengalis had converged to Shahbag to sing patriotic songs, recite poems and read out episodes from Bangladesh’s history of the Liberation War. At the centre of the protesters’ demands was Abdul Kader Mullah’s fate.

On February 5, the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) found Mullah guilty in five out of the six charges against him. Known as Mirpurer Koshai (Butcher of Mirpur) because of his atrocities against citizens in the Mirpur area of Dhaka, he was charged with beheading a poet, raping an 11-year-old girl and murdering 344 people. The ICT sentenced Mullah, presently assistant secretary general of the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, to life in prison. For the protesters in Shahbag Square, this isn’t enough — they want Mullah hanged. On the other side, the Jamaat-e-Islami protested violently and also took out demonstrations. But its efforts to influence global opinion foundered in spite of a well-funded effort.

Curiously enough, Mullah’s case has been taken up by the government of Turkey. President Abdullah Gül sent a letter last month to the president of Bangladesh requesting clemency for all those accused of mass murder. Fortunately, Turkey’s president appears to be an exception and much of the world has shown little regard for genocidal killers.

Pakistan has shown zero interest in Mullah’s fate. The media is silent and the Foreign Office has not issued any statement. This is quite ironical because, like the forgotten Biharis of East Pakistan, Mullah has been abandoned although he subscribed to the Two-Nation Theory and had fought alongside the Pakistan Army for a united Pakistan. In 1971, local political and religious militia groups like Razakar, Al-Badr and Al-Shams assisted Pakistani soldiers in the mass killings of Bengalis, often singling out Hindus. Many militia members were also members of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The disinterest in Shahbag Square epitomises the enormous gulf that separates Bangladesh from Pakistan. The period of our national history — where 54 per cent of the country’s population chose to secede from the other 46 per cent — remains supremely inconsequential to Pakistanis. For them, Bangladesh could well be on the other side of the moon. The question is: why?

Searching for an answer, I browsed through textbooks currently used in Pakistani schools. The class-five Social Studies text (English), taught to 12-year olds, begins with citing the differences between Hindus and Muslims (e.g. Hindus burn the wife after her husband dies but Muslims don’t), the need to be aware of the hidden enemies of Pakistan (religious extremists are not mentioned) and the importance of unceasing jihad. It devotes a total of three sentences to a united Pakistan, the last of which reads: “With the help of India, East Pakistan separated.”

The class-eight Pakistan Studies textbook (English) is still briefer and simply states that, “Some leaders of former East Pakistan with the active help of India managed to break away from Pakistan and established Bangladesh.” The class nine-10 (Urdu) book — by far the most detailed — devotes nearly three pages to explaining the disintegration. The listed subtitles include: a) Incompetent government of Yahya Khan; b) Hindu domination of trade; c) Nefarious role of Hindu teachers; d) Language problems; e) Indian interference; f) The elections of 1970.

Having seen only grotesque caricatures of history, it is impossible for Pakistan’s youth to understand 1971. But how can I blame them? Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s knew in our hearts that East and West Pakistan were one country but not one nation. Young people today cannot imagine the rampant anti-Bengali racism among West Pakistanis then. With great shame, I must admit that, as a thoughtless young boy, I, too, felt embarrassed about small and dark people being among my compatriots. Victims of a delusion, we thought that good Muslims and Pakistanis were tall, fair and spoke chaste Urdu. Some schoolmates would laugh at the strange sounding Bengali news broadcasts from Radio Pakistan.

Even as they agonise about ‘losing’ the East, many Pakistanis still believe that 1971 was a military defeat rather than a political one. Dr AQ Khan, who met with Jamaat-e-Islami chief Syed Munawar Hasan this week, writes that nuclear bombs could have kept Pakistan intact: “If we had had nuclear capability before 1971, we would not have lost half of our country — present-day Bangladesh — after disgraceful defeat.”

But would this have really worked? Even with a bomb, the Pakistan Army would be surrounded by a hostile population and peppered by the Mukti Bahini’s guerilla attacks. Though armed with tanks and aircraft, the weakness of West Pakistan’s position was irreversible. With a hostile India in between, the logistics of supplying 90,000 troops from a thousand miles away were simply horrendous. India had, of course, refused permission for over-flights, leaving only the sea route. A long war would have left Pakistan bankrupt. More importantly, all occupying forces — including the Indian Army in Kashmir and the Americans in Afghanistan — typically exact disproportionate retribution when attacked. The atrocities of occupiers heighten local resentment and add hugely to the insurgency.

I am still trying to understand our good doctor’s suggestion. Could the bomb have been used on the raging pro-independence mobs in Dhaka? Or used to incinerate Calcutta and Delhi, and have the favour duly returned to Lahore and Karachi? Threatening India with a nuclear attack may have kept it out of the war, but then East Pakistanis would have been massacred wholesale.

History cannot be undone but it’s time to move on. Bangladesh is right in demanding an apology from Pakistan — one which we have so far refused to give. Let us do so now and start a new chapter in the relationship between our two states. If we have the honesty and courage to take this step, as a bonus, the problem of Balochistan might become a tad easier to understand — and perhaps, solve.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 16th, 2013.