From a distance, it looks like a spectacular lotus. But this group of boats aligned together by the riverbank is not the story here. The story is that of a man getting his (presumably, early-morning) shave of the day, and his barber, in the foreground. This is Sadarghat in Old Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The next image, just for a split second, looks similar. Except that here, the barber and his patron are at the centre of the piece and the spectacular lotus has been replaced by a mound of potatoes. When you read the caption you realize it’s further off from Old Dhaka than it appears. This is Kabul, Afghanistan.
The story of the barber is played out in the bylanes of Islamabad, at Turkman Gate in Old Delhi, and in downtown Kathmandu, Nepal. You can’t quite guess the locations merely by looking at the photos. There couldn’t be a more straightforward way of talking about the shared past and present of the eight countries of the subcontinent as drawing common threads off its streets.
That was the idea when Devika Daulet-Singh, director of Photoink, a photo agency, set out to curate Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which opens today as part of the first Delhi Photo Festival. The festival is a collection of photography exhibitions from India, Asia and some international works. This exhibition was put together after Daulet-Singh was commissioned by the public diplomacy division of the ministry of external affairs to curate an exhibition that could travel to the eight Saarc countries. All the 117 photos were taken from the existing archives of the photographers. “Street photography could explore the shared histories and bridge some of the differences between these countries. It had the potential to transcend the conflicts of the times and present conditions of civil society as it progressed and evolved across these countries,” says Daulet-Singh.
Horsemen in Hisarak village, Balkh province, Afghanistan, 2004.
The street, in this selection of photographs, is a stage for the ordinary and the extraordinary. Or the ordinary which looks extraordinary. A devotee carrying an idol of goddess Kali appropriately sticks out his tongue and has the same crazed expression. Two friends sit talking on a bench by the sea, while a spectacular white light from behind makes them looked haloed. “These are not pictures that will make it to National Geographic, they are not picturesque. Many of them do have an atmospheric quality, because they are so evocative,” says Daulet-Singh.
“Streets involve a lot of the social and political life of the country and, in this exhibition of works, capture different aspects of life as enacted on the streets of these countries,” says Prashant Panjiar, creative director for the festival. “The street captures the entire gamut of living life,” says Panjiar, whose works from his collection King Commoner Citizen feature in this exhibition.
From the early-morning shave, to the confrontation on the street, the day’s work, mid-day musings, hunger pangs, afternoon siestas and religious processions and prayers, it’s all played out on the street. The experience of photographing on the street is like “magic”, says Munem Wasif, whose works from Old Dhaka feature in this collection. “It’s something you can see, smell and feel, which can disappear in a moment,” he says.
Photographing the Street: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka opens today at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. The Delhi Photo Festival is on till 28 October.
Photos: Courtesy Prashant Panjiar, Seamus Murphy, Ruvin de Silva, Balazs Gardi, Munem Wasif/Agency Vu, Kevin Bubriski