BENGALURU: Bengaluru prides itself in being a melting point of diverse culture, ethnicity and claims of a pluralistic society that banks on creativity and innovation.
While a majority of us swear by these values that we hold synonymous with the city, the recent cases of racial attacks has mirrored the harsh reality, an undercurrent that runs during weekday routines and the weekend highs.
Bengaluru-based photographer Mahesh Shantaram began documenting the lives of these migrants after one such report of a racial attack that shook him deeply.
On January 31, a Tanzanian student was assaulted and stripped by a mob in the city after a Sudanese student’s car ran over and killed a local woman.
“Some people will tell you Delhi is a racist city because of this reason and Bengaluru can never be racist because of that reason. I have collected anecdotes from Africans across India and to me it is clear that the whole country stands united on one cultural aspect – our racism,” says Shantaram.
Beginning with Bengaluru, Shantaram has travelled to the cities of Jaipur, Delhi and Manipal, choosing to focus on students, as they are a small and vulnerable group; having nowhere to go to seek redressal for their injustices in a society that is prejudiced against them.
Along with an intimate portrait series on Africans living in India, Shantaram also documents his conversations with them in a fortnightly series online.
“Anywhere in the world, it is the African who feels the heat of racism the most. But this project is really about India, Indians, and Indianness. In my project, Africans are only helping us realise the gravity of our own racism. That’s why the pictures need to be seen along with the stories. It’s not enough to see them as standalone portraits,” he explains.
Every time there has been a report of a racial attack against Indians, our social media fires up with posts of support and ones shaming the West for rising ethnic hate. However, in a stark contrast, we indulge in inter-culture and intra-culture racism ourselves.
“We are an extremely proud people. Often that pride is misplaced or baseless. For example, we grew up singing Saarey jahan say achha Hindustan humara. How can we be sure of this? We need to be more self-critical, have an open mind that is accepting of other cultures, and re-evaluate our place in the world of nations. Instead, we are quick to mouth homilies about how India has been a tolerant culture for centuries,” he explains.
Several reports sketch Indians being capable of great empathy and kindness, however in the recent past, with the vitriolic atmosphere in the nation and the rising incidents of intolerance among our very own, one doubts if we, as a society, have become largely insensitive and intolerant of people.
“India has had a poor track record of respecting the rights of the other. The present government is only a symptom of it, not the cause of it. I’ve found people who violate fundamental rights of others can easily use Indian culture as their bailout card. For example, the law criminalising the rights of LGBTQ people is only upheld by the unrelenting strength of Indian culture and it predates any Indian government,” he says.
Each photograph in this ongoing project — The African Portraits — is preceded by time shared between Shantaram and his subject. This allows for the development of trust and a level of comfort and ease - reflected both in front of the lens and behind-the-scenes, in the stories they share with him.
“Meeting all these people and getting to the point of making a portrait suggests the intimacy I share with them (as opposed to traditional hit-and-run photojournalism). Collecting their many anecdotes helps me discover the larger stories that tie it together. For example, a largely unregulated education industry plays an active role in fuelling Africans’ insecurity in India. That’s one facet of the big picture,” Shantaram says while explaining the work put behind this visual series.
He says that the perception of India that Africans hold changes when they start living in our cities.
“Their perceptions of India are built by watching Bollywood films (which have deep penetration across Africa). It changes in their very first weeks after arriving here and begin interacting with people,” he says.
Shantaram’s series of intimate portraits are being showcased in an exhibition at the Tasveer gallery in the city. The exhibition is on view until the 23rd of September.
“What I hope this show will do is put Africans in the consciousness of the Indian public and create one more platform for us to talk about racism,” Shantaram says.
After Bengaluru, the exhibition will travel to Gandhinagar, Mumbai, Kolkata, and end in Delhi.