Bombay Showcase

The inclusive gaze

Mahesh Shantaram has been shooting for years, but has never had a solo show so far. This is because a lot of his projects like ‘Matrimania’, and ‘The Last days of Manmohan’, have not drawn to a conclusion as yet. But his project, “Racism: The African Portraits”, work on which commenced in February this year, is now complete and on display at Tasveer, Bengaluru. The show comprises insightful portraits of Africans living in Bengaluru, Delhi and Jaipur, many of whom were invited for the show’s opening on August 26.

The trigger

We may have forgotten the attack on a 21-year-old Tanzanian woman by a mob following the mowing down of a local resident by a Sudanese student. But in Shantaram’s mind, the incident has remained etched forever. “It was a moment of African Nirbhaya for us. All these years, we never considered attacks on Africans as racist. They were seen as isolated incidents. But this episode did start a debate. It [the show] is my response to that,” says the lensman.

When Shantaram began the project, he didn’t know that so many Africans live in Soladevanahalli, Bengaluru. One contact led him to another, and that is how it all came together. The first shot he took was of Hassan, a student. In his traditional costume, the young student appears pensive in the photograph. “When I reached his house, he was wearing his traditional dress. I never told them to change or took them to different locations. The idea was to capture them in their environment,” explains the artiste.

The result is a collection of portraits which weave a sombre narrative of the racial issue. The surroundings that they have been captured against — bright wallpapers, sparse rooms, a parking lot with an elephant for company — are all integral to the story.

Shantaram’s subjects: Prosper, Charity, Michel, Wando, Abdul Kareem, Zahruddin... all opened up their homes to him. “Because I think I was open. The first thing I told them was not, ‘I want to take your photos’, but ‘I want to talk to you’. Most of them don’t have Indian friends. So they live with each other, make friends with each other. But they were excited that an Indian was so interested in their lives,” he says.

People as portraits

Most of Shantaram’s subjects happen to be students studying computers, pharmacy and radiology. “They opt for courses which will get them jobs immediately. But it is a myth that a majority come from financially weak backgrounds,” says the photographer. For example, Prosper, the son of the Chief Minister of Tanzania, is one of the several subjects from his work who puncture our notion.

Sitting on the parapet of his terrace, Prosper looks at the viewer with a gaze that is questioning and curious at once. Michel’s is a grave gaze. He is the brother of Olivia, the young Congolese who was beaten to death following an altercation with locals in Kishangarh, Delhi.

Wando is not a student, but someone who has made India his home despite a racial attack in 2013. Shantaram’s photograph of him shows him lying in bed with his two kids.

Portraiture is the most difficult style of photography, according to Shantaram. “Who is looking at whom and how? Who has the right to do so? But I have tried it for the first time. The viewer thinks he/she is looking at us (the subjects), but they are also looking at us. You may think that this is about African people but actually, it is about us, our concerns as a society,” he says.

See for more on Mahesh Shantaram’s work

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 3:59:43 AM |

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