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In India too, black lives should matter

A photo exhibition in Delhi by independent photographer Mahesh Shantaram captures the lives of young Africans living in isolation in India’s cities.

art and culture Updated: Jun 03, 2017 15:31 IST
Paramita Ghosh
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Prosper, the son of a governor of Tanzania. One of the photographs of the series, The African Portrait, by photographer Mahesh Shantaram (Photos Courtesy: Tasveer)

If you meet someone very different or very foreign, first ask him his name. Then ask where he has come from; does he miss home; in the new city, is he comfortable; has he made friends; are there any doubts you could clear or things you could help him with. Africans have long and enduring social, cultural and economic relations with India. These are questions, Africans say, few ask them any more in India.

In early 2016, independent photographer Mahesh Shantaram, who uses documentary photography to study complex systems, societies, and institutions, was shaken when Tanzanians were attacked in Bangalore, one of India’s most cosmopolitan cities. Shantaram decided to follow the lives of African students in Indian cities and capture what they had to say about their Indian experience. His series, The African Portrait, is being organised by Tasveer Arts.

Hassan, a footballer and a student of marketing in Bangalore, was Shantaram’s window into the community — their hopes, their hurts, and the immense grace and stoicism with which they carry on with their everyday lives in the face of irrational hostility. Who knows better than Africans what it means to be ‘Black’? But with a shared history of anti-colonialism — a basis for which was a misplaced, racial sense of superiority on account of skin tone — did they have to re-discover that in India?

In his photo-blog where Shantaram is documenting his ongoing project in greater detail, Hassan says, “I thought in India, I would live like a boss! People ask us if we wear clothes in Africa. Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?”

Individual journeys

How did Shantaram meet the people he did? “There are a thousand stories, of course. But the people I met are largely students who have come to India believing in an open society and a progressive environment in which they can study and prosper. None of the young African men and women I have met so far are drug peddlers or prostitutes,” says the photographer.

Ameenou in Jaipur. He is from Nigeria. (Photos Courtesy Tasveer)

Shantaram’s collection is also meant to drive home the point of seeing the Africans as a people rather than just victims. “The incidents in the past couple of years have aroused the curiosity of right-minded people about who are the Africans in our midst. And if they are in our midst, why are they so invisible?”

Read more: See the Africa you never did in Roger Ballen’s stunning photos

That is one of the aims of this project — to make them more visible and their collective voices heard. You can’t look away from these photographs. The gorgeousness of the backgrounds, as many young Africans sit or stand for their photographs, point more sharply to the grimness of their experience.

Here are, among many others, Vitu, a psychology student in Bangalore from Malawi, a country whose third president, Bingu wa Mutharika, came in the ’60s to India on scholarship to study economics; Prosper, the son of a governor of a province in Tanzania; Natoya of Jamaica (not an African but a ‘Black’ from West Indies) studying Applied Medicine in Manipal. Her Indian friends probably enjoy the “exotic value of her company” on campus but “hesitate to be seen in public with her”. There is also the couple Hamza and Shukura from Nigeria, studying nursing in Achrol village in Jaipur; and Ameenou, another Nigerian whose photograph with an elephant is curious to say the least.

“These elephants take tourists on trips up and down Amer Fort, near Jaipur,” explains Shantaram. “This picture was shot in an apartment building where all the houses are rented by African students. Since none of them have cars, the building owner rents the parking spots to the elephants!”

Read more: The surreal world of Pablo Bartholomew

Shantaram sought out people whose story he knew before-hand. Sometimes, he discovered a story after an extended conversation. And sometimes, he shot a person simply for his or her aura even if they don’t have much of a story to share.

Natoya, a Jamaican, is a student in Manipal (Photos Courtesy Tasveer)

And he shot them all by night. But why?

“It’s an aesthetic choice. Curiously, nobody would ask me about it if I made these portraits by day,” says Shantaram. “In the India where these portraits are set, it is perpetually night. The act of making these pictures at night unifies several processes — technical, aesthetic, and social. Far from being a threatening space, the night rather offers the security of a warm blanket.”

What: Mahesh Shantaram - The African Portrait
When: Till June 16, Monday to Saturday 10.30 am– 6.30 pm
Where:Exhibit 320, F 320 Lado Sarai, Old M B Road, Chatri Wala Kuan.
Nearest metro station: Saket