Of Pirates, Feminism, and Democracy: Shahidul Alam, Singed but not Burnt
Ina Puri is a writer, biographer, art curator and collector.…
Shramana Saha, former editorial intern at KCC, currently works as…
In 2018 #FreeShahidulAlam became a rallying point for people across the world to question their respective governments, to demand democracy in its elemental form. International agencies and intellectuals condemned the imprisonment of the Royal Photographic Society fellow and Chobi Mela founder. He was taken away in the middle of the night after he criticised the government for resorting to ‘brute force’ to cling to their seats, in lieu of the student protests regarding road safety in Dhaka.
Cognizant of the war on free speech that the radical right is waging everywhere, Ina Puri, the curator of the exhibition, views Alam’s work as a ‘beacon of light and hope’. Friend and longtime admirer of Alam’s, she knew one of her personal goals would have to be to maintain objectivity. At the same time, however, she could not believe the golden opportunity and privilege that she was granted. Puri confessed how ‘friendship is one thing, but to look at his work from such close quarters [was] another experience altogether.’
‘Singed but not Burnt’ was organized for the first time by Emami Art (Kolkata), displaying 67 frames, many unveiled for the very first time, and delved into the story of the photojournalist and master storyteller Shahidul Alam himself, in his own voice. Starting with his early days of dabbling in romantic frames in London, then moving on to his salon photography and experimentation with proto-selfies, we were brought to the moment he returns to Bangladesh, finding himself in the midst of an anti-Ershad protest march. The exhibition shed light on the nascent stages of Shahidul Alam’s activism, where one could see him forming his distinct voice and recognizing his calling.
‘As journalists, we need to feel the heat, to stand close to the fire, but then we also risk being burnt. If we were to take one step back, we become ineffective. The trick, therefore, is to get singed but not burnt.’ ––Shahidul Alam
Alam plunges into his activism, and gradually his works become dedicated to the cause of democracy, of equality, of lending a voice to the voiceless, of garnering recognition for the unaccounted.
He chooses his medium of seeking justice to be storytelling, like with the series ‘Crossfire’ where he documented the extra judicial brutality conducted by the Bangladesh army and police force in 2009–10.
‘The constructed images use elements of real case studies to evoke stories that the government has denied. A quiet metaphor for the screaming truth.’ [‘Crossfire’ label]
The frames are alluring, but in an uncanny sort of way–– one is left unsettled without quite knowing why.
All his pieces tell us a story, sometimes one frame at a time, and sometimes through a juxtaposition of two. What arrests the spectator is the sheer simplicity and clarity of his compositions. This clarity is also evinced in his letters and interviews which have also been incorporated in the exhibition.
PERSONAL IS POLITICAL
Although set as a separate section in the exhibition, one soon comes to identify Alam’s entire career to be based on this axiom. Unless one’s public life is clearly in tandem with their private life, rarely can they engage with a wide range of people from different walks of life.
Puri, who is a close friend of Alam’s, beamed stating that she has been to each and every exhibition of his across the world. She has seen how, be it a fellow National Geographic photographer, or a little girl in a village, both are drawn in–– either by his skills, or simply to see her pet goat captured in an exhibition photograph. Reaching out to people has always come easy to Alam.
A man, named Major Zia, lived beyond the rules of the land, at the margins of conventional society–– constantly absconding from authorities, living on boats, and being ‘up to no good’. This ‘king of the pirates’ steered clear of all company–– but, interestingly, we find a photograph of him on his boat with his most trusted men in Alam’s collection. Shahidul Alam saw people for who they were, and eschewed the societal stereotypes slapped on them. His ease and transparency consequently bestowed him with the trust and friendship of the other.
This is also true for his work with women–– colleagues, students, and members of society. He worked extensively with women, a lot of whom were victims of sexual abuse and sex workers–– naturally outcasts–– and that raised a lot of eyebrows. But his doors were always open to them, says Puri.
His stance on the women’s cause and feminism is best elaborated by Ina Puri in the following interview segment.
Question: We are aware of Shahidul Alam’s efforts in setting up Onno Chokhe Dekha (first collective of women photographers in Bangladesh, 1992). And while it is now widely agreed upon that men need to take equal responsibility in the fight that is feminism, we are more often than not met with the bare minimum and, frankly, an inadequate and misogynist take on the matter. What was your experience, as a woman (as cliched as that sounds) curating a from a man’s body of work that prominently features women (directly, or in the background), and presenting it for what it is?
Ina Puri: ‘From the earliest times, when I’ve had conversations with him, and later on seen his work, [and before that] heard about him from my own boromashi Mahashweta Devi–– she was very very close to Shahidul, he used to call her didi; when she was in Dhaka, she often stayed in their house; Rahnuma [Ahmed], his partner, was also very close to mashi–– so I also had opportunities to discuss them and their work with someone I had always been very close to and whose words I held very dear. So, there were different ways of looking at his works, through different eyes, and after that it was absolutely my own perspective. But, the advantage was that I could sit with him and ask him. And, while of course his work is–– and he likes to present his work in a way which is very very postmodern and all of that, yet strangely there is a kind of classical approach to the work, and that is what we have tried to bring in this exhibition ‘Singed but not Burnt’. It is about showing works in a way that is slightly classical. And we begin with early stories of London and move to early days in Dhaka to the time he sees Ershad and what is happening in his country–– his country, he is proud to call his homeland–– and moves to a time Ershad is brought down; Khaleda Zia is brought into power with huge expectations, and again, sadly it is the same story.
Some of these leaders happen to be women. So, it is never “oh, just because she is a woman she is doing great work”–– it’s not like that. You also have to have objectivity: “what work is she doing?” So, when it comes to Shahidul and the women he worked with–– there has been these various groups of women he has been close to, whom he has developed a closeness with: some of them are sex workers; some of them are very poor, raped and rejected (like women who are married off to soldiers and taken to Pakistan, while some are left behind); women who are abused sexually and otherwise, and subjected to various personal and professional problems. He speaks up on their behalf, and does it in a way that is remarkable. And, this has been a part of his life from his early times to now, that with them–– and there is an equality, he is never treating them as people inferior to him–– he is standing shoulder to shoulder, and that is very touching to me. These are women from different stratas, or different walks of life, but he sees them as equals, and treats them as equals, and they are a part of his narrative. There is a photograph in this exhibition where there is this woman with her hair open, she is standing there, and all these men are taking photographs–– she is objectified because she is a woman. She’s a model, posing in front of all these people–– all these men.[Shahidul’s] point is that (departing from there), he then has involved women in his own work, has brought in very important voices like Taslima Akhter, like Shahia Sharmil, like Saydia Gulrukh, and several other women photographers who have all started taking pictures, and they have their own narratives to tell. They are not pictured–– they are taking the picture. It’s their voice. And I think that is what he has done single handedly through his institutions. Today Pathshala, Drik–– all the agencies that he has set up: you find so many women who are working there shoulder to shoulder with the men. And it’s something that is daal bhaat (very commonplace) [for them there]–– “it is supposed to be like this”. This, that he has succeeded in establishing, is something that I personally admire a lot.’
The need for equality began right at his home and extended to his professional output. Once, to communicate to his parents how the class discrimination of the help at home can no longer be tolerated, he printed the photograph of Mizan (house help at Alam’s parents’ home) watching television from the doorway, since he was not allowed to sit with the family inside the room, on the cover of Drik’s 1998 calender. Needless to say his mother heard him loud and clear, and Mizan was promptly welcomed into the family’s television sessions.
As for Drik and Pathshala, the grounds for their establishment were to challenge the hegemony that the white West had cultivated for themselves in the world of media. The question of identity boiled down to the politics of representation. The power dynamics were skewed along global, gendered, and classed lines, and that is what Alam wanted to defy by equipping indigenous photographers with the space and the exposure.
It is no wonder then that the first edition of Chobi Mela (Dhaka, 2017), the first ever photography festival in Asia, was on the Bangladesh Liberation War of ‘71.
THE WAR WE FORGOT
It is the everyday moments of pain and struggle, love and wonder, that make up a people. Alam has been archiving just that. He has been collecting stories of his people–– the man who is compelled to sleep on the streets of Paris in the cold of winter, while another man wears shoes with diamond studs; the women working in garment factories, at the same time earning and exercising their freedom; families that bid their men farewell at the airport in the hopes of a better life, concealing the fear of never seeing them again behind their best smiles–– the countless, nameless people who are forgotten in the flux of time.
Shahidul Alam thus uses storytelling as a means of resisting amnesia. This is demonstrated best in his set ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’.
Kalpana Chakma was an activist in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. She vehemently criticised the Bangladesh Army atrocities perpetrated on the indigenous men and women, especially condemning the sexual harrasment that the women had to endure on a daily basis. On 12 June 1996 the Army abducted her, and she has been missing since.
No photograph of her exists, but that doesn’t hinder Alam’s enshrinement of her spirit. The images of activists seeking justice for Kalpana on chatais (a household item in her life), and photographs of her personal belongings only make her absence more prominent. Not only that, Puri recalls how six years ago, for an exhibition of ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’ in Delhi, a group of them read out fictive letters and journal entries of Kalpana’s (written by Alam) by candlelight to be able to imagine and recreate, the final words, along with the unspoken ones, that are lost to us forever, of a woman lost to us forever. She adds, ‘I think, in smaller ways, every photograph of his has that element in it. Every photograph captures a moment in history’ that is a fraction of a larger picture that we must research and read about.
BY THE SWEAT OF THEIR BROW
That is what true teachers and activists do–– they ignite the mind and ask questions. ‘There is always something to learn from Shahidul. Whenever I speak to him, I always feel like I’ve learnt something new, that I have learnt to see something in a novel way,’ says Ina Puri. She has designed the exhibition in that strain itself; given the imagery that finds itself in the intersection of protest, reportage, and art, there is something new for everyone here.
Ina Puri believes that while someone does ‘the work’, it is the duty of others to take the message forward. She hopes to take the exhibition across India in the future, experimenting with different activities and forms of presentation. She is ‘happy and satisfied’ to have been able to successfully put together the exhibition in Kolkata first, as she had intended. It astounds her how despite the proximity between Kolkata and Dhaka, it took so many years for the Alam’s exhibition to reach Kolkata.
Puri had also hoped to have showcased it in a space that was open to and welcoming of all–– she wanted to engage with students and common people who did not necessarily come from an art background. Thus, when Emami Art got back to her with a positive response in an otherwise barrage of rejections (tenable, given Shahidul Alam’s controversial reputation amongst government authorities), she was understandably delighted and encouraged. She hopes that this initiative would open many more doors for it, because, as Alam said it himself, ‘Fear is contagious, but courage is contagious too.’
*This interview of curator of ‘Singed But Not Burnt’ Ina Puri was conducted by Shramana Saha on behalf of Articulate when the exhibition was first organised by Emami Art in Kolkata. The exhibition is currently ongoing at Arthshila, Ahmedabad. For more information on this exhibition and other cultural happenings around the country, keep an eye on our culture calendar.
Feature image: Bishsho Estemah, Shahidul Alam. Image courtesy: https://www.emamiart.com/
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Ina Puri is a writer, biographer, art curator and collector. She is the author of several books, including 'Faces of Indian Art and Journey with a Hundred Strings'. She produced 'Meeting Manjit', a film on Bawa, which won the National Award. She currently occupies the position of Editor at Art Varta and has also published a pictorial memoir on Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma entitled, 'The Man and His Music'. Her latest book is 'Raghu Rai’s Kolkata', the distinguished photographer’s fascinating narrative of the city and its people. Ina’s three-decade-long engagement with the arts embraces everything from tribal art and folk theatre to contemporary performing arts, visual arts and literature.
Shramana Saha, former editorial intern at KCC, currently works as Junior Editor at Karadi Tales, Chennai. With a master’s in English Literature from Jadavpur University, a certificate from The Seagull School of Publishing, and an Editorial Internship at KCC under her belt, she hopes to find herself deeply involved in the world of publishing someday. As for her hobbies, Shramana hopes to continue rowing well into her twilight years, playing some instrument or the other along the way.