A Greek myth tells the story of Icarus—who tried to escape from exile with wings fashioned out of feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall to his death.
Mumbai-based photographer Amit Madheshiya, 28, had this story in mind when he spent a year photographing young, runaway children on the streets of Mumbai. His project, Icarus Wings, was facilitated by a 2009-10 media fellowship from the National Foundation for India, a public charitable trust that instituted these fellowships 15 years ago. The 35 images created as part of the project are currently on display at the Plaza, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, till 26 January.
Many distressed children, as young as 6, run away from home to come to the megacity of Mumbai. Some journeys are precipitated by domestic abuse, some by poverty. Some children are chasing opportunities; some are escaping petty crimes, whereas some are in quest of independence. A few arrive nameless—bereft of memories; others rechristen themselves after film stars and stand enraptured by the neon lights and the skyscrapers.
Madheshiya’s project shows that the children take a detour through many cities, travelling in trains and living on railway platforms till they reach a big city. He attempts to trace a trajectory too. Most of the runaways he met in Mumbai were from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. “They first go to Kolkata, as it’s the nearest big city, and then make their way to Mumbai or Delhi,” he says. According to his research, more than half a million children live on city streets across India and about one-fifth of them can be found in Mumbai alone.
What evokes Icarus’ tragic tale is that though Mumbai adopts all with alacrity, there is the fear of being burned: On its streets they are prone to starvation, addiction, diseases, bullying, gang brawls, sexual abuse and the sometimes irresistible charm of the world of crime.
Icarus Wings is part of a bigger, personal project Madheshiya has been working on since 2008—on the lives of migrant children in metropolitan cities. For the Delhi leg of this project, for instance, he focused on the children of migrant labourers.
Street children remain a special subject for Madheshiya since they were the first subjects that he took to as a media student at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia. “When I started photography, I’d go out on the streets to shoot and children were the most complying subjects,” he says. What started off as a matter of convenience soon became a consuming passion. “I was interested in finding out what makes them tick; their strength and resilience at an age when sheltered children can barely take care of themselves,” he says, adding, “I realized that friendship was the most sought after thing.” Asked why the street children readily allowed him to trail them, he explains: After a few months, they took him for a friend. One seven-year-old told Madheshiya possibly the most poignant thing he’d ever heard: “Food is very easily available if you look around but a good friend is not.”
Next week we will publish works by Sucheta Das, another fellowship awardee, who documented children in the beedi industry in West Bengal.