The Unsung series, the brainchild of Mahesh Bhat, is an exemplary compilation of such stories and of how photography can be used as a tool for social change. The books and the exhibition chronicle stories of remarkable Indians who have made a difference in society against great personal odds.
In this issue of Better Photography, Tanvi Dhulia and Nilofer Khan speak to Dinesh Khanna, Amit Mehra, Sharmistha Dutta, Prashant Panjiar, Aparna Mohindra, and Mahesh Bhat about their thoughts and experiences on photographing these lesser-known pioneers, reformers, activists, and trailblazers, who have worked vigorously for their communities.
Words as Weapons
Dinesh Khanna speaks to Nilofer Khan about his father-inlaw, Rajendra Yadav, who revolutionised Hindi literature.
Have you ever met a person who transformed the way you perceive the world? Someone who challenges and guides you, and if required, a reality check. Dinesh Khanna went through something similar when he met Shri Rajendra Yadav, his father-in-law. “I would look forward to our discussions. Initially, it would be frustrating as he was completely unflappable. Later, I realised that he was putting up a mirror for one to look at his own thoughts and ideas,” recalls Khanna.
Mr. Yadav was a renowned author of Hindi literature, and the creator of the Nai Kahani (New Story) movement. As the Editor of Hans, a prestigious Hindi magazine, he took it upon himself to promoted the works of marginalised communities. “I need to make sure that it will always have space for people to express their suffering, their struggles and their dreams,” Mr. Yadav said in an interview. It was due to this reason that Khanna decided to chronicle his father-in-law’s story. “It was very difficult for him to run the magazine financially because advertising only came from a few state governments and companies. Despite this, he ensured that the magazine was published and revered by many. To me, this was heroic,” says Khanna.
The series, a collection of stark black and white, grainy photographs, depict Mr. Yadav’s story with the utmost sensitivity. You’ll find yourself gradually peeling back multiple layers that Khanna’s photographs poignantly portray—his strength and perseverance. “The photographs are indicative of something without blatantly exposing him. I didn’t see any reason to hide his tray of medicines, which was a part of him. In fact, it symbolised his strength to go on,” he says.
Mr. Yadav was a trailblazer, a man who constantly attacked orthodoxy in society. “If only I could shock people out of their bigotry and hypocrisy. But it’s not easy. I’ll have to keep trying,” Mr. Yadav said. The series gives us an intimate and untainted glimpse into his life and how he was able to transcend his struggles. “He has lived his life true to his beliefs and principles. A life without compromise. A life that many could only envy,” says Khanna.
Javed Ahmed Tak was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2020. Amit Mehra speaks to Tanvi Dhulia about documenting him.
For Amit Mehra, making pictures of Javed Ahmed Tak in 2010 went beyond the purpose of contributing to the second volume of Unsung. “There are some people you photograph, who change you,” he says. Tak, who is a resident of Bijbehara, in the Anantnag district of Kashmir, is a social worker primarily involved with children with disabilities. In 1997, he was gravely injured during a militant attack at his cousin’s residence, after which he was declared a paraplegic.
For nearly eight years, he was confined to his house. During this time, he began educating children who were not enrolled in schools, for free. “I did this lying on the bed,” read Tak’s narrative in the book. “By the end of the year I was tutoring ninety children from morning until night.” Investing time and effort into helping them allowed him to heal from the pain and depression.
He enrolled himself for certificate courses in Computing and Human Rights from the Indira Gandhi National Open University, and even set up a computer centre for the youth. Further down the line, he registered a society called the Humanity Welfare Organisation, and eventually enrolled for a Masters in Social Work at Jammu University. A Public Interest Litigation filed by him brought to light the disconcerting lack of support for people with disabilities in the state of Jammu & Kashmir. “When I met disabled people and asked them about their problems, they expressed the lack of education as a big one. They had nothing to help reclaim their lives, no job that would use their capacities and no opportunity that would help further it.” This led to the creation of the Zaiba Aapa Institute of Inclusive Education that focuses on equipping children with various disabilities to become as self-dependent as possible.
In the course of their conversations, Mehra also learnt that a number of children attending the school were those of exterrorists. For Tak, their parentage didn’t affect his work with them. What struck him about Tak was his boundless compassion. “Watching Javed bhai is a lesson in gratitude. He effortlessly reaches out to all the children without bias. He treats all of them with equal affection. He never gets irritated or loses his temper. And perhaps most importantly, he never loses hope.”
But convincing him to be a part of the project was a great challenge for Mehra. “He would keep asking, “why me?”” He suspected that a part of the apprehension was also because Tak was unsure of his motives. Six months down the line, the veteran photographer who had been documenting Kashmir and its people for several years, managed to win over his trust. After several delays due to a rise in conflict in the region, Mehra was able to visit him thrice, staying for a couple of days each time.
The pictures capture the warmth of Tak’s relationship with the children, and scenes from classrooms where students are engaged in activities. Behind these tender moments is the weight of unrelenting military presence and threats of unpredictable violence. In his essay for the book, Mehra wrote, “Kashmir is not like the rest of India… Decades of militancy have unhinged it from normalcy. Disability here is a bigger problem than anywhere else in the country; it is much more prevalent here. And yet, so little has been done to address it. There is unease, there is trouble, there is trauma and depression.”
Amit Mehra recalls a thought that Tak once shared with him, that perhaps tells us where he gets his strength from—“Mehra sahab, animals may live for themselves, but human beings live for one another.”
Sharmistha Dutta shares her thoughts with Nilofer Khan on the rapidly shrinking communities of weavers in Uttar Pradesh.
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