It had been a hectic month. An assignment in Sri Lanka, followed by the World Press Photo award ceremony in Amsterdam and Martin Parr’s Sam Presser lecture. It had been many years since Martin had slept in our flat in Lalmatia, with his feet sticking out of the Bangla sized cane bed. Abir Abdullah a student from the first batch at Pathshala, was there for the launch of the book, “New Stories“. Other WPP students featured in the book, whom I had interacted with over the years Kemal Jufri (Indonesia), Mwanzo Millinga (Tanzania), and Sudharak Olwe (India), had also become established photojournalists. Many of them teachers in their own right.
A trip to Cornwall, for the ‘Majority World Summit‘, with my colleagues Colin Hastings and Rowan Watts followed. Then on to the Nordic Light festival, organised by my old friend Morten Krogvold. Though I had always admired Michael Kenna‘s atmospheric images, this was the first time we met. The Lanky Irishman and I decided we’d bring some mirth into this serious gathering, and swapped our ID tags, confusing everyone. His cousin Gilian Varley, gamely played along. We invented an Aunt Christine, who commented on how dark I’d become. Getting shorter would probably have been more difficult to explain.
Woman with cholera. West Dinajpur. Bangladesh 1971. © Don McCullin/Contact Press Images
Don McCullin was one of my heroes. We still had his hand-made prints of 1971 in our archives. The long evening chats with Don was a delight. He talked of his experiences in West Dinajpur, and the famous picture of the woman dying of Cholera.
It was comforting to know she had survived. I remember him talking of the exposure reading he had talken before the picture of the grenade being hurled. “Why die for the wrong exposure” he had simply said. William Klein‘s dry wit was as fresh as his photographs.
I was envious of the energy of this octogenarian.
Then it was a pit stop at Heathrow airport to meet up with my sister and pick up my camera equipment before heading off to Tehran for the judging of the First Biennial of Islamic Photography. I had been looking forward to meeting up with James Nachtwey again, but he had to cancel in the last minute and I became the only foreign jury member. My old friend Bahman Jalali was in the Iranian jury. I hadn’t met Shadi Ghadarian since she had visited Chobi Mela III. She and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh now had a beautiful daughter Leila. Staying overnight at their place required all sorts of permission. I was apparently a guest of the president, and the special attention I received, meant limited freedom. I had worked out a system and managed to spend most of my stay at Ruchira Gupta‘s. Ruchira and Sunil took me on the Tehran gallery crawl, plus some interesting diversions like the reception at the magnificent garden of the Italian Ambassador, and the studio of the rebel artist Parvaneh Etemadi. Omid Salehi, the other Iranian photographer who had come to Bangladesh for Chobi Mela III, made it back in time from Kurdistan to my lecture at Saba, so it was a reunion of sorts.
I briefly returning to Dhaka before going to Mumbai for the finals of the Development Marketplace contest. Shabana Azmi, who was giving away the prizes was a friend of Parveneh and Ruchira, so we stole a few minutes on stage to talk of old friends. I was also able to meet up with old friends David and Charmayne De Souza, Swapan Mukherjee, Fawzan Hossain and Suchit and Annu Nanda. Another pit stop in Dhaka and then the trip I’d been waiting for. Madanjeet Singh‘s invitation to Srinagar in Kashmir.
It wasn’t the celebrity group that Madanjeet had invited that attracted me. Srinagar was a place I had longed to see. It wasn’t so much the beauty of Kashmir, or the Shalimar Gardens that intrigued me. I had photographed the earthquake in the Pakistani section of Kashmir. Knowing the relevance of the region to peace in South Asia, I wanted to find out for myself, what the Kashmiris felt. With Indian visas becoming increasingly more difficult to get, this was a chance I was not going to waste.
The former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan had been a bridge partner when we were both playing in the Dhaka Club Blue team. We were then national champions, representing Bangladesh. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury had been part of our small group of people who had been active in trying to get Internet to Bangladesh. We were the three Bangladeshis in this gathering of South Asians. Photographer Ram Rahman and activist Harsh Kapoor were old friends, but there were the quirky incidents with people I knew less well, that livened up my stay. Like the midnight meeting with Chandrika Kumaratunga in the business centre of the Grand Palace.
While I helped her get connected to the Net, I remembered how elusive she had been when I had wanted to photographer her while she was president of Sri Lanka.
But the tension outside was difficult to ignore. Few Kashmiris would say anything out of place. At least at first encounter. But from the security checks before boarding the plane, the police registration upon arrival at Srinagar airport, the inability to use our mobile phones, the multiple layer check posts on the way to the hotel and the embargos on either leaving early or arriving late, one knew things were not Okay.
On our trip to Uri, the one trip we made out of Srinagar, the visual signs of Indian military presence was overwhelming. The convoys of military vehicles moving in both directions.
The enormous security team that chaperoned us through the city. The nervours soldiers near the line of control. All had the visible signs of occupation.
There had been relative peace in Kashmir, and the economy had prospered during the lull in violence. The concert in Srinagar, by the Pakistani group Junoon, while enjoyed by the young crowd that attended, was criticised by others. Kashmir was far from unified, and opinions about the role of the Indian military and the role of the Kashmiri militants differed, but once you went below the surface, once there was a modicum of trust, they all spoke of one desire. Azadi (freedom).
Salma Ali was one of the new people I met. Quiet but determined, she tried to talk me into going with her to see the Pashmini weavers. I didn’t need much persuading.
I had been told off for going on a Shikara (wooden boat) trip on my own. We decided to ignore the restrictions on early morning departures and went for a dawn Shikara ride. The boatmen never came, and apart from the pictures I took of the boats gliding through the mist,
or the friendly Kingfisher that perched nearby, I spent much of that morning talking to my new found friend. She had seen a different Kashmir. The following is Salma’s story.
The Mughal Emperor Jahangir is said to have written about Kashmir, “Gar firdous bar rue zamin ast hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast” (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)
My first morning in Kashmir, I was awoken by a gentle, sorrowful sound. Thinking I was in a dreamlike stage between jetlag from a 20-hour journey and the excitement of coming to a place I never thought I would see in my lifetime, I tried to go back to sleep.
I couldn’t. It was 4:15 am, and the sound beckoned — softly, longingly, mournfully. I sat up in bed and gazed out the window, letting my eyes wander to the direction of the sound — behind the mountains to the east, beyond the Lake, between the mist and the darkness. It continued its lament, its gentle pleading. I opened the door to the veranda to listen more intently, wrapping myself in my shawl for warmth and protection. The song continued. It was in Arabic, perhaps verses from the Quran, I thought. But what? And why? I closed my eyes and listened. It seemed like the mountains, the lake, they were praying. Perhaps remembering times past, when heaven needed no protection; perhaps asking for forgiveness from all the misery they had witnessed. Everything was still, attentive — the chinars, the roses, the birds, the wind. It seemed they were listening too, and agreeing. The lament continued until the darkness turned to day, and then, as mysteriously as it had started, it quieted. I never heard it again. It’s safer to cry in the dark, when no one can see your vulnerability; to pray in the still of the night, so the day can wash away the pain.
Lady Mohini Noon introduced me to Mehraj bhai as soon as I arrived in Srinagar. Mohini and I happened to share a car together from the airport to the Grand Palace hotel, and our first get-to-know-you conversation somehow turned to shawls. She said her shawl-wala, from whom she has been buying shawls for more than 20 years (and her mother from his father before that) lives in Srinagar, and usually travels to Delhi to visit her when she is there. I thought to myself how amazing it would be to meet Mehraj and see his shawl collection. As if reading my mind, Mohini called Mehraj as soon as we arrived at the hotel. A few hours later, having secured special permission for him to enter the hotel gates given the tight security in the city during our stay, there he was with bundles and bundles of shawls, in every variety and color and texture, all wrapped up in cotton sheets. I was in heaven, in every sense of the word. I have been collecting shawls for years, from all corners of the world, and now to be in the birthplace of shawls, with shawl after glorious shawl being unwrapped in front of me, was a dream come true. We spent hours modeling pashminas and jamawars and kanis. But there was one in particular I just couldn’t take my eyes away from.
I had asked Mehraj if he would take me to the place where these shawls are made and teach me about the process, an age-old tradition which fewer and fewer practice. We planned to meet the next morning at 9:30 am. I was getting cold feet. Where would Mehraj take me, would I be able to get back to the hotel given the bund in the city that day, and in time for the afternoon events, and what about all the warnings from family not to wander off foolishly by myself. Determined to go, I decided to ask a fellow event participant to join me. He had a silver-gray tussle of a beard, and despite his gentle eyes, I thought he would suffice as a bodyguard — and he had a very fancy camera around his neck — perfect, he would take great pictures too, I thought. He graciously agreed and we were off to the Old City in Mehraj’s little white Toyota Innova. Little did I know then that I had just invited one of the world’s most renowned photojournalists to accompany me on my shawl jaunt.
We arrived in a narrow dirt lane outside a multi-storied brown-brick building where Mehraj used to live (his sister and her family live there now) which serves as shawl-making central. We walked up the narrow winding staircase to a small windowed room painted in blue with three hand looms. Gilam Mohammad, in a checkered shirt, was working on the loom to the right as we entered. He has been weaving shawls for 20 years. Shaukat Ahmad, in the dark striped shirt, had been doing this work for over 13 years. When I asked Shaukat if he enjoyed what he does, he hesitated but said, “I like this work, that’s why I do it.” When I asked him if he would want his children to learn his craft and continue the family tradition, he was more unwavering: “My hope is that my children do something else, hopefully they will get a government job. Someone is going to learn this craft after me, but not my kids,” he added. Shaukat and Gilam work at the looms eight to nine hours each day, their poor eyesight testament to their many hours of meticulous work. Asked how they feel about the fact that this tradition is no longer as prized as it once was, Mehraj Bhai quickly added, “I feel sad that so many countries are now making shawls by machine; that people are being cheated of quality and workmanship.”
We walked around the corner to another home where two women, mother and daughter, were chatting and working. Mehraj bhai handed me a plastic bag of wool.
The mother, Muglee, wearing a floral colored shalwar kameez and sitting against the wall with one leg outstretched, showed me how to clean the wool, to remove the soft hair from the coarse. Lovly, her daughter was spinning the wool into yarn on the charkha — painted blue to match the blue walls behind her. Wearing a black abaya, her head gently covered by a matching dupatta, she smiled as she worked, patiently showing me how to hold the wool, oh so gently, with one hand so it doesn’t break. It did, each time I tried. Lovly’s two children played around them, her daughter smiling constantly like her mom.
She kept holding out her hand so I would be sure to see the round circle of mehndi on her palm; her son was captivated with Shahidul’s camera. Shahidul took his picture and showed him his image on the screen.
In the next house, we met Muglee Bhat and her daughter Rushna. Muglee thought she was about 50. We couldn’t take our eyes off her. Her gentle smile, her graceful manner, her elegant features, and those eyes. Captivating. She didn’t quite understand why we kept taking her picture. And her daughter’s too. No one had ever taken a photo of them before. They saw themselves captured in pixels for the first time in Shahidul’s lens.
Then we met Zahoor, the man who had woven the shawl that had captured my eye the day before. He was working on another one that seemed similar — with 200 tillis wrapped in different colored yarn splayed in front of him, following a numbered pattern on a piece of paper that was perched on the loom like a sheet of music.
He had completed 20 inches so far. In seven months. The shawl I had fallen in love had taken him thirty months to make.
It was my last day in Kashmir and I hadn’t yet been on a shikara ride on Dal Lake. Shahidul and I decided to go early, when the light would be just right. We walked outside our hotel and waited by the edge of the lake, where two shikaras were moored. Shahidul started stalking a kingfisher.
The kingfisher played hard to get. He persisted, tiptoeing closer and closer to capture the birds best side. Soon, it seemed the kingfisher was enjoying all the fuss. He started posing, turning this way and that. Even leaping into the lake to show off his fish-catching prowess. As we waited for the shikara drivers to arrive, we called out to the boatmen in the distance who started appearing, like ghosts, from behind the mist. “Bhai, hum ko be jana hai,” Shahidul yelled out, hoping they would take us along. “Thorey dher ke liya, aajao.” They didn’t oblige. We didn’t get to ride in a shikara that day, but it didn’t matter. With the mist gently rising from the lake and inching its way up the mountains, the graceful silhouette of boatmen tirelessly cleaning the lake, houseboats lazily lolling on the placid waters, majestic mountains protecting its dignity — we knew we had found what we had come for … it is here, it is here, it is here.