Portraits of the persecuted – Deccan Herald

Posted: October 11, 2020 at 5:54 pm


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In a special introduction to mark the 20th anniversary of her iconic book The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (1998), author Urvashi Butalia wrote, All the questions that remain alive today how citizenship is defined, how the State relates to its citizens, what a relationship of trust means, how refugees are defined and understood, how many of our cities have developed, the lands they took in, the settlements that were built and so much more find resonance in that violent founding moment.

These questions cannot be dismissed as the idle preoccupations of scholars raking up the past to problematise what is done and dusted. They are intimately connected to questions of survival. Delhi-based photographer Anuj Arora (27) realised this when he began working on a photography project to document the lives of Rohingya muslims, one of the most persecuted communities in the world, living in refugee camps in and around Delhi-NCR. It struck a personal chord because his grandparents were Partition refugees who fled Lahore in 1947.

Having grown up on his grandparents stories, Arora could readily empathise with the experiences of the Rohingyas. They were forced to leave behind their homes in the Rakhine state of Myanmar and find shelter wherever they could. Many of them escaped genocide and came to Delhi. During his research for a diploma project on documentary photography at the Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication, Arora learnt that they reside in four main areas Shaheen Bagh, Madanpur Khadar, Okhla and Vikaspuri. Titled Unsettled Identities, his series of photographs is now being showcased on a digital platform curated by the Prameya Art Foundation. It is an intimate record of their everyday experiences.

A mother combs a childs hair. Children huddle together and read. Family photographs and identity documents are tightly held on to. A bonfire provides warmth on a cold night. Youngsters play with abandon. A father looks lovingly at his child. Some are immersed in their cellphones; others rest on the ground and stare at the sky above. Arora says,Delhi has been a place of shelter for migrant communities from Sindh, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Jamaica, Myanmar, Bangladesh and many other parts of the world. I wanted to focus on Rohingya Muslims because they have lived amidst us for decades, but we know so little. They face linguistic and cultural barriers and problems related to education, housing and employment.

Earning trust

Just being curious was not enough. Arora had to earn the trust of the community leaders. They wanted to understand why he was interested in their lives. It occurred to him that the Rohingyas in these refugee camps live in a state of constant fear, so it was natural for them to be on their guard. Arora says,They wake up each morning and check on what is happening in Myanmar. They migrated because of ethnic cleansing, but there is a lot of sentimental value attached to their memories. They are not only worried about themselves, but also about relatives in Myanmar since the verification forms used in India ask them to mention addresses and contact details of those people.

Building a relationship was important. Once they warmed up to Arora, he was invited to meals and became a regular recipient of their hospitality. While interacting with them, he found a lot of tender moments to capture. Soon, he decided to shoot the entire series in black and white and shades of grey, in order to reflect the mood in the refugee camps most accurately. The children who gathered around him wanted to learn how to use the camera, so he also conducted some informal photography workshops and encouraged them to practise the craft.

Bearing witness

Arora believes that official documents and school history textbooks usually focus on the hard facts. They do not reflect the feelings of refugees and the hardship they go through. Each person, and every family, has numerous stories to tell. Nobody can predict when the wounds will heal, if they do so at all, but what artists can do is bear witness. We cannot take away the pain that they have gone through, but we can sit there and listen as they speak, remarks Arora.

Spending time with them brought up questions about what his own grandparents must have encountered when the carnage in 1947 made them pack up their bags and migrate to the Indian side of Punjab, from where they moved to refugee camps in Delhi. Arora wonders whether they too felt out of place all their lives, while trying to adjust to a new homeland and feels grateful that they survived despite everything that they lost. His photographs are also, in a sense, a tribute to their resilient spirit.

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Portraits of the persecuted - Deccan Herald

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October 11th, 2020 at 5:54 pm

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