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What is like being an African in India?

Every Indian city is convinced that they are open to outsiders. Yet, photographer Mahesh Shantaram’s portraits of India’s African population prove otherwise

HT48HRS_Special Updated: Dec 01, 2016 16:49 IST
Soma Das
Prosper, Tanzania/Bangalore; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016
Prosper, Tanzania/Bangalore; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016(Photo courtesy: Tasveer)

Every Indian city is convinced that they are open to outsiders. Yet, photographer Mahesh Shantaram’s portraits of India’s African population prove otherwise

in February, a mob assaulted and partially stripped a Tanzanian student in Bengaluru. Half an hour earlier, a Sudanese student had run over a sleeping woman along the roadside, and the mob retaliated by assaulting the Tanzanian woman.

For photographer Mahesh Shantaram (39), this incident — one among several other racial attacks on Africans across India — served as a wake-up call. “Till then, I didn’t even realise that there was an African population living in Bengaluru.” Shantaram decided to shoot portraits of African students to learn about the community.

Misana, Tanzania/Bangalore; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016 (Photo courtesy: Tasveer)

He travelled across Bengaluru, Jaipur and Manipal meeting 50 African students. Around 19 of those images are on display at an exhibition, The African Portraits, by Tasveer. Each image portrays an African in their surroundings, and mentions their home country to dispel the notion that they are homogenous.

Read: Sudharak Olwe on changing the world, one photo at a time

Shantaram met Africans from varied economic strata — from the uber-rich, to those from war-torn countries, and impoverished students whose parents sold their land to send them to study in India. Most come here for the education: “Universities/colleges approach tribal chiefs or ministers in African countries and encourage them to come and study in India. That leads to a sudden African population in an area. The locals, whom the Africans turn to (especially for accommodation), mistrust the new inhabitants, and often refuse them homes.”

Ameenou, Nigeria/Jaipur; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016 (Photo courtesy: Tasveer)

It’s not just about accommodation. In colour-conscious India, Africans end up living in ghettoes and moving together to feel safe. A girl from Congo, living in Delhi, told Shantaram that she preferred going by a longer bus route than use the Metro. “She said that she didn’t like people staring at her. And in the Metro [where people sit facing each other], she feels uncomfortable.”

The medium of portraits, he says, helped build a relationship with the subject: “When you click someone’s portrait, it makes them feel special. In the process, I got to meet them repeatedly and learn their stories.”

Abdul-Kareem, Nigeria/Jaipur; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016 (Photo courtesy: Tasveer)

Racially segregated by classmates, homeowners, even the church, the African students would often confide that they don’t have any Indian friends. “Ironically, everywhere I went, Indians were convinced that their city is different and everyone is welcome. Yet, I didn’t meet a single African who didn’t face discrimination every day. They are one of the most victimised groups in India; people taunt them for fun,” says Shantaram.

Shantaram’s previous work also documented India’s socio-cultural aspects: Matrimania (2009-2015) highlighted the commercialisation of Indian weddings, The Last Days of Manmohan (ongoing from 2014) delved on Indian politics. “While this project documents Africans, it holds up a mirror to Indians and helps us understand how intrinsic racism is in our society,” says Shantaram.

Hamza & Shukura, Nigeria/Jaipur; Mahesh Shantaram; Archival pigment print; 2016 (Photo courtesy: Tasveer)

The African Portraits is on display from December 3 to 10, 11am to 7pm
At Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA), CIA building, Rampart Row, Kala Ghoda
Call 2204 8138