A swathe of light falls across her face, highlighting doe eyes and luminescent skin. Lying on a queen-size bed covered with a bright-patterned bedspread, Natoya looks almost like a coffee-coloured version of Spanish painter Francisco de Goya’s Clothed Maja.
This photograph of the Jamaican was clicked by Mahesh Shantaram, who is often told that his subject is incredibly beautiful. Yet when he met her, she spoke of instances when people were so disgusted by her presence that they would spit at her.
Many African students Shantaram has spoken to across India face racist slurs every day. Natoya, a medical student at Manipal University in Karnataka, is one of them.
The photograph is part of The African Portraits, a Shantaram collection that is being exhibited at the Tasveer Gallery in Bengaluru.
The incident that triggered this series of 19 photographs is one that was documented by every news agency. In February, a 21-year-old Tanzanian girl was beaten and stripped, and her car burnt, by a mob in Hesaraghatta, Bengaluru.
When Shantaram heard about this, he visited Soladevanahalli in north-west Bengaluru, where much of the African population is clustered, and began engaging with the student community there.
As he delved deeper into their lives, he realized that their stories needed to be told—urgently. They are a vulnerable community who do not have any agency to fight for them, he says, pointing out that the community has been ghettoized.
He says many Indians have a limited understanding of Africa. “Many of the students I have spoken to come from diverse backgrounds. Some are from political families, whereas others had to sell their land to fund their studies. This project is also about recognizing their diversity and celebrating it,” he says.
Travelling to Jaipur, Delhi and Manipal for the project, Shantaram engaged with these students, culling out stories of racism, discrimination and ignorance. “I would talk to them for several hours and let them share their stories. It would take a lot of convincing before they would sit for a portrait,” he says, adding, “Anyone who comes to the gallery will realize that there is a relationship between the photographer and the subject.”
Shantaram says that African students come to India because “there is an impression that India is a mecca for higher education”. Their love for Bollywood is another influencing factor. “They think it is a beautiful place with beautiful people who sing and dance on the street. But within a week of coming here, their image of India is shattered due to the racism and cultural restrictions they face,” Shantaram adds wryly.
The African Portraits will be on till 23 September, 10am-5pm (Sundays closed), at the Tasveer Gallery, 26/1, Sua House, Kasturba Cross Road, Bengaluru.