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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  In search of a home
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In search of a home

Raghu Rai's latest exhibition documents the lives of refugees living in India

Refugees in New Delhi.Premium
Refugees in New Delhi.


Raghu Rai was four years old when Partition happened. All that he remembers is how one night in 1947, the neighbours gathered in his family’s three-storeyed house in Lahore because their own homes were burning—Rai’s house had a back door that could be used to escape. A few months later, Rai reached the refugee camp in Jalandhar, Punjab, with his parents.

“It was the first brush with the feeling of being a refugee and not having your own home," says Rai, sitting in his Mehrauli office in New Delhi.

Inevitably, when Rai took up photography in 1965, he started taking pictures that captured the lives of refugees, including the Tibetan refugees in India. His 2013 book, Bangladesh: The Price Of Freedom, is about the refugees of the 1971 war.

As we mark World Refugee Day on Friday, Rai, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), India, has put together a series of photographs documenting the lives of refugees in New Delhi and Chennai.

The Longing To Belong: Refugees In India exhibition will display 50 colour photographs of refugee communities from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Somalia, shot by Rai over five months since January.

The latest government and UNHCR figures put the number of refugees living in India at 110,000 Tibetans and 60,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, as well as 24,000 refugees and around 5,600 asylum seekers from countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia and Iraq. A majority of them live in New Delhi but some are based in Andhra Pradesh, Jammu, Haryana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. According to the UNHCR in India, these refugees face livelihood challenges and discrimination from local communities, have limited educational opportunities, and often work as daily-wage labourers.

The images present a mixed bag of emotions. While Sikh refugees from Pakistan can be seen doing the bhangra dance, Somalian and Afghan girls are seen learning stitching. Chin refugees from Myanmar can be seen cooking their local delicacies. And Hindu refugees from Pakistan, living in jhuggis in Majnu ka Tila, appear to be lost in thought and seem oblivious to the camera. There are also images of some Sri Lankan refugees going back home—uncertainty about the future apparent on their faces.

“The photographs bear testimony to the resilience and courage of the displaced who come to India to seek safety from persecution in their own countries," says Rai. He adds that the Afghan women were the most difficult to photograph. “Every hour they would just tell me, ‘Thank you very much’, indicating that I should leave now, but I would smile and act silly and continue photographing," Rai says.

Asked why he chose colour over black and white, something he is known for, he says: “Because it would tell exactly how their lives are. Black and white adds more misery to the photograph, while coloured ones tell about their expressions of happiness, the twinkle in the children’s eyes, the blue Afghani scarf that a Sikh refugee is wearing and the dull gowns of the Sri Lankan refugees, and most importantly, the fact that all they want is to go home, where they belong."

Longing To Belong: Refugees In India is on from 21-26 June, 11am-7pm, at Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex, Main Building, India International Centre, 40, Max Mueller Marg, Lodi Estate (24619431).

Chanpreet Khurana contributed to this story.

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Published: 19 Jun 2014, 10:37 PM IST
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