Tired hands practice the age-old art of mukaish badla work in the forgotten bylanes of Lucknow. The empty, forlorn eyes look straight at you. A thoughtful Saeeda Bai in Mira Nair's A Suitable Boy strums a tanpura.
Two generations - one old and broken and the other too young to understand loss - unable to bridge the gaping hole of a missing generation, look away from the lens. Delhi photographer Taha Ahmad is the chronicler of longing in unseeing eyes.
This month his works travelled to The Reach Gallery Museum, Abbotsford, Canada, as part of a joint exhibition - 'Duje Pase Ton (From the other side): Arts Across the Border. From the Two Punjabs'.
The show brings together the work of 22 international artists of united Punjab, now divided between India and Pakistan. Partition is the grim leitmotif which is bound to have resonance in a country with a large Punjabi diaspora.
"The idea for the exhibition came from a series of Artists in Residence programmes that took place in India and Pakistan," Ahmad says. In India, the location was Preet Nagar, Punjab - home to an 83-year-old Punjabi progressive literary magazine, Preet Lari, created by visionary writer Gurbaksh Singh.
“It was home to an utopian project that witnessed the Partition first-hand. Lahore is just 15 km from Preet Nagar,” says Ahmad, a writer and traveller. "My project evolves from my personal space and moves on to depict society and injustice," he adds.
The work received the Social Documentary Photography Grant SACAC 2020, Samyak Drishti Photo South Asia Grant 2020 and was shortlisted for Imagining the Nation State Grant Chennai Photo Biennale 2020.
While working on the project, Ahmad was certain that he would not restrict himself to Partition alone. He wanted to build on it and show how it has shaped the current pluralistic landscape of Punjab - "I've tried to cover Punjab in all its rawness - from terrorism to drug issues, from religious fundamentalism to displacement, and capture tales of oppression."
His grandmother would often talk about how her extended family was separated from some members as they moved to Pakistan, while most stayed back in India. Recording the visual narrative was an emotionally draining experience for the young photographer.
"My challenge was to gain the trust of the subjects and be allowed to take a peek into their lives and stories. It was also a moment to face my own fears," he recalls the tension brewing in many locations where he was shooting, which could very easily have resulted in a killing or a kidnapping.
He recalls how during a break in his photoshoot, he played cricket with the locals in Lopoke village. "As luck would have it, I was bowled out. But I was in the mood to play, so I stubbornly said it was a 'no ball'. Before I knew it, an argument had erupted and one of the guys pulled a gun on me. Needless to say, there were no more cricket matches," says Ahmad with a wry smile.
Then there was Kimti Lal, who runs a post office in Lopoke. During the 1984 riots, he was shot in the head. "The bullet is still lodged in his head," remembers the photographer."I also came across this girl belonging to the lower caste who had been raped by the higher caste men. Her family was too scared to report the incident. While you keep reading about such instances, coming face-to-face with it shakes you to the core," Ahmad says.
Is photography the ultimate memory keeper? "Of course. Don’t we capture an image in our mind to record a cherished moment?" he smiles. French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard called cinema "truth 24 frames-per-second". Photography is perhaps ‘memory countless frames-per-second’.