There is a reason why the Brahmaputra is a male river,” says photographer Swapan Nayak. He is trying to explain why, while rivers in India and elsewhere are referred to in the feminine gender, the Brahmaputra is not. During the monsoons “he”, i.e., the river, becomes furious and unpredictable, frequently altering “his” course. Nayak has had occasion to see the river’s fury and its consequences at close hand.
As a photographer with Outlook magazine, he covered the North-East for 11 years. He is showing some of the photographs he shot during this time as part of an exhibition which will showcase two photo series titled Nowhere People and Refugees In Their Own Land.
Besides “permanent” islands, such as Majuli which is famous for its large size, there are as many as 500 temporary islands in the stretch of Brahmaputra that flows through four districts of lower Assam. They are called Char, and Nayak says that typically, they are there for about five or six years before being washed away when the river is in spate during the monsoons. Often, a new island surfaces 2-3km from where the old one was.
Sometime in the 1950s, refugees from what is now Bangladesh made these shifting islands their home. At present, there are 1.6 million people living in the Char areas; all but a few are Muslims. Nayak first went there on assignment to cover elections and was astounded when he realized that, barring election time, there was no sign of the government and its agencies there.
“What struck me most was how cut-off one felt from the rest of the world,” he says. “There was no infrastructure—no markets, no drinking water, no roads, no hospitals, no schools.” Two years later, Nayak went there on his own and then, over the next two-and-a-half years, made over a dozen trips to the Char area to document the lives of those who called these islands home.
In most of Nayak’s photographs, his Char subjects look too busy to notice the camera’s presence—whether it’s a young woman feeding cattle, two men struggling to manoeuvre a boat to the riverbank, or a man and a woman toiling in the fields. The only relief from the unceasing toil is provided by a few frames in which the subjects are children. For the adults, leisure and repose seem like a luxury they can ill-afford.
A boy carries a load of freshly cut grass for cattle in Dhubri district in lower Assam. (Photograph by Swapan Nayak)
Nayak says the constant struggle for survival and livelihood, and the near-continuous battle with the elements, has been their lot for more than 50 years. And with little or no education, their children are destined to lead the same life. “An elderly man, in his 70s, told me that since he was a child, he has had to shift and make a new home in a new island six-seven times,” he recalls.
By default, the people living in the Char areas are dependent on the mainland for survival—they go there for menial jobs, to sell their produce, and to buy daily necessities. It helps little then that the “locals” —mainlanders—treat them with suspicion and contempt, reviling them as robbers and thieves. Such attitudes couldn’t be farther from the truth, according to Nayak. “If anything, they live in fear of the mainlanders,” he says. “I have observed them closely for two years. They lead a hard life, but I’ve never heard them complain.”
His black and white photos capture the difficult life in the Char areas, but they can also be seen as an ode to, or even a celebration of, grit and determination, of survival against the odds.
The second series, Refugees In Their Own Land, document the internally displaced people in the states of the North-East, victims of ethnic rivalries and violence who have become refugees in their own country. “I wanted to go beyond what made news,” he says. “To show the emotion of being hounded out of your home by your neighbours, the shattering effect of the loss of hope.”
(Nayak’s images will be on display at The Stainless Gallery, New Delhi, until 19 April.)