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On Kalpana’s trail

Shahidul Alam Photo Sandeep Saxena.

Shahidul Alam Photo Sandeep Saxena.   | Photo Credit: Sandeep Saxena

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Shahidul Alam’s imagery brings forensic approach and emotional flavour in the same frame

Somebody who is known to tell visual stories that probe human consciousness and unsettle governments, it is difficult to corner Shahidul Alam. The man captures thoughts. And when the celebrated Bangladeshi photographer says, “I am media savvy, technologically savvy and articulate…I am a powerhouse,” you not only feel the energy behind the photos that highlight the plight of people who lost their lives in crossfire, extra judicial killings or to the wrath of nature but also how an artist can stretch the boundaries of a medium to make his point. One only manages to put Alam in a corner seat at Khan Market’s SodaBottleOpenerWala. Informal is the word that describes the Irani style café/bar style which offers Parsi delicacies like eggs Kejriwal (nothing to do with the Chief Minister) and aaloo aunty vegetable cutlet. Here the background music shifts from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Pag ghungroo” without notice on a working day afternoon.

Alam is in the city with his latest exhibition “Kalpana’s Warriors”, where his works trail the sudden disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, a young leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women’s Federation. She was allegedly abducted from her home by military personnel in June 1996 and has been missing since then.

“It is a story I have been working on for some time. Being from Bangladesh, I am very conscious of the fact that our nation was born out of the need to speak our language. Yet, in our own nation, we are suppressing others to speak their language. It is also about how military occupation affects lives and the need for justice.” Sekanjebin, a drink made from dried plums, mint and jaggery, is a suitable companion for a conversation that has got zing.

Alam has followed a forensic approach to tell the story which has not been thoroughly investigated. “I took the last journey that Kalpana had made. I collected objects like the bark from a tree, a stone from the well that she has sat upon…and subjected them to very high photography essentially making them the witness. Since the authorities had not asked the material witness, so I was asking the silent witness.” And here in the art comes in.

This is not the first time that Alam has done it. In his celebrated work “Crossfire”, he photographed the paddy field where people got killed in crossfire. When the police came to shut down his exhibition in Dhaka, Alam asked the officer what troubled him about the photograph. “He gave me a wonderful conceptual analysis of my own photograph which I have on film. I have used it in subsequent reincarnations of my show where he is explaining why showing the paddy field is such a dangerous thing to do. And I asked him does everybody know what the word crossfire means and he said his three-year-old girl knows what crossfire is.”

When Alam interviewed people who knew Kalpana, they repeatedly talked of the bareness of Kalpana’s home. “That there was no furniture. That Kalpana slept on the floor on a straw mat.” He used those mats as material to create his unique imagery. “The straw mats were burned by a laser beam much as the fire that had engulfed the pahari villages.” It is these linkages that make his works worrisome for some and disturbing for most. “I make it unsettling; I deliberately try to take people out of their comfort zone. I think people have been in comfort zone for far too long. The information needs to be given but it also needs to contextualised. Once they enter the space there should be linkage of thought. I hope when people leave the exhibition space they take something with them. And it should haunt them.”

As the dibba of dhansak opens, Alam recounts his student days in the UK when he used to cook.

“When I was doing my Ph.D I used to live in a community in a Catholic chaplain. So there was a priest, a nun and two other extremely devout Christians. So we used to take turns to cook. I used to flaunt Bangla names and take them as guinea pigs for my experiments. For a while I got away with it. I was good at keema dal and phool gobhi.” Those were difficult days for Alam. “I had to work to pay my way through the university. I used to work in a building site as a labourer. Once during Christmas, the work was stopped because of holidays but I still needed work. I asked can I be the security guard but didn’t realise that over the Christmas holidays all the shops were closed as well. So by the Christmas Day, I was starving. But then as I was about to lose hope my sister, who is a doctor in Liverpool, arrived with bhaja koi maas. The food never tasted better before,” Alam reminisces about the fish that can climb tress while having tareli macchi, a Parsi-style baked fish.

As a photographer, Alam says, he could eat anything and sleep anywhere. He remembers the cricket and chilli ice cream he had in Mexico and how he slept in open during a cyclone in Bangladesh. And how can he forget his experience when he was picked up by Border Security Force in 2009. “I used my most chaste English to ensure that the gun wielding jawans allow me to make me a phone call.” What followed was even hilarious. “When the officer came he turned out to be a Bengali. I still continued in my Queen’s English and he kept on trying to match. The result was first he said usko chai do, followed by mithai khilao…acchhi dukan se! And ultimately I was handed over at night in light of torches.” Ironically, Alam is working on a series of migration where India is one of his focus areas.

As the laughter subsides, one observes Bangladesh is going through an interesting churn. On one hand bloggers are being lynched for their opinion and on the other Dhaka is emerging as one of the biggest art hubs in Asia. “Bangladesh has woken up to a very vibrant, contemporary and inclusive art scene. It has certainly shaken up the art world and the old guard is on its back foot. The new fluidity is very interesting and the multiplicity of approach is coming in but there are also taboo areas. You will not find a gallery in Bangladesh, except for our own, that will show art work that is directly critical of the military. Very few artists are taking on political issues that need to be taken up,” analyses Alam, who runs Drik Gallery in Dhaka. He contends that all political parties are the same when it comes to using religion for political and economic goals.

On the kind of threats he faces, Alam is candid. “I have not been knifed for 20 years. So I am doing well,” he smiles showing the scar on his right wrist. Alam gives it to his strong presence in the digital landscape. “It provides possibilities that simply didn’t exist before. I have around 54,000 followers on Instagram and my blog page has 70,000 subscribers. One of the reasons that I get away with the things that I am doing is because I have such a big community with me. The government has tried to close me down before and it has backfired. The moment they try all these people come on board and they have to handle that.”

It takes us to the memory of Nelson Mandela, whose last official portrait Alam clicked. “He was very generous. I positioned myself according to the light but Professor Muhammad Yunus was standing in between and he wouldn’t move. Mandela sensed it. He was so savvy. As Yunus moved a bit, he looked at me and gave me the perfect pose. More than that when my friend cartoonist Jonathan Shaprio made a cartoon of him showing the halo slipping, he called him and said, ‘good job’. When Shaprio said, ‘but Sir…’, Madiba remarked, ‘that’s your job’. That’s the difference,” he underlines.

(The exhibition is on at Gallery Art and Aesthetic, Lado Sarai, New Delhi till March 5)

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Printable version | Dec 9, 2019 8:42:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/on-kalpanas-trail/article8188835.ece

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