Stephen Neil Gershom and Shama Nimkar
Photography, as a field has been expanding, as the number of photographers too have increased multiple times. A majority of them take up photography as a personal hobby and a way of expression, but amid the crowd of hobbyists, are some gems such as Mahesh Shantaram, who photograph for a cause.
Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer who is internationally recognised as being the pioneer of modern photography famously said, “In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.” This statement proves to be very apt for this particular exhibit at Tasveer, the first Pan-Indian Photo Gallery.
The exhibit in question is a body of work done by Photographer, Mahesh Shantaram and is named, ‘The African Portraits’. He has turned to formal portraiture for the first time, as he set about documenting the life of Africans living in India through a series of intimate portraits. He attempts to bring the attention of the Indian public to the lives of these students and the racism they face in our country and these images displayed at the gallery make the viewers look beyond the stereotype about Africans.
Anishaa Taraporvala, the PR and marketing manager for Tasveer, said “the series began after the mob attack on a Tanzanian woman in Bengaluru when a Sudanese man accidentally killed a woman in a car mishap, and Mr. Shantaram set out on a personal project to meet African people in Bengaluru in order to find out how they were living. The series started off as Facebook posts to raise awareness about the issue and it eventually spread out and became a movement against racial violence.” The violence carried out by the Indians towards the Africans post this incident struck an emotional chord in Mr. Mahesh who then decided to help this foreign national community who had become extremely vulnerable in India.
Mr. Mahesh’s lens attempts to reach out to the masses by narrating the shocking stories and diasporic struggles of these individuals. The story behind the picture of Mr. Wandoh Timothy with his children is an excellent example, which reflects the contempt shown towards this community.
Mr.Wandoh lives in Bangalore. As documented by Mr. Shantaram, “The shocking attack in broad daylight on Wandoh Timothy made national headlines in 2013. On that fateful day, he was on his way to pick up his daughter from school. Repeatedly provoked into responding to a gang of miscreants, the situation quickly turned ugly and a mob descended upon him. What shocked Wandoh the most was that people watched from their balconies but none came to his rescue.”
Many African students are denied accommodation, colour alone being the reason for shelter deprivation. Another strong picture is of Michel, a Delhi resident, with a photo of his dead brother in the lower corner of the frame. He lost his brother, to a head injury which was a result of an argument which later turned into a fight with auto-drivers in Delhi. He died on the way to the hospital.
There is a flipside to the story too; these people have portrayed immense courage by continuing to live in India and are proudly presenting their identity, as there are a few African students living peacefully in India. In Amer, a suburb of Jaipur, there is a large college where African students study and since Amer and Africa both have a large Muslim population, these students were invited by the people of Amer to lead prayers in the mosques, showing the rest of the country that it is possible to live in harmony. An image of Mr. Abdul Kareem kneeling for his daily prayers namaz on the terrace of a building behind which stands the Amer Fort, its silhouettes further enhancing the beauty of a brightly lit up Jaipur City under the dull evening sky, was seen in the Tasveer Art Gallery.
Mr. Shantaram’s pictures have been successful in reflecting mental and emotional stress, the individuals from the African community’s experience. The faces captured have expressed more than a thousand words. He very well brings out the lifestyle of African students living in India and the nuances associated with it in different regions of the country. Very subtly putting to the viewers the fact that these Africans are facing racial discrimination even when it is possible to live together in peace.
Mr. Shantaram is still working on the African Portraits and is currently in Delhi. The pictures come from different regions of the country, starting from Bengaluru and covering Delhi, Manipal, Jaipur etc. which are all hubs for African students in India.