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Saibal Das | Interview
Saibal Das. In Conversation with Naveen Kishore
NAVEEN KISHORE. I have been looking at your photographs—migrant labour, Berlin, circus and a mixed bag of other subjects. It struck me that there was a time when we could walk out and take pictures and be met with warmth by the people on the street who would occasionally stand and ‘pose’! These days, however, I find the streets more ‘suspicious’. People look worried. Some even get aggressive when you are shooting. Have you noticed this during your work? Do you want to talk about this ‘new suspicion’?
SAIBAL DAS. Yes there is definitely an element of suspicion. Everywhere. People question: why is he taking a picture? Not so much ‘what’ but ‘why’, certainly. I have seen this in Kerala, I have seen it in Bengal, in Tamil Nadu. In Kerala. I was doing a shoot for Outlook. The theme was ‘heritage’. So I had to visit a lot of heritage sites—temples, churches, mosques. I’d get out in the morning to catch the right light and mood. I faced tremendous problems. Particularly in the temples. At first they said, no, it’s not possible to click a picture here. Then they started to ask: why do you want to take a picture here? I explained that we were doing a book on the heritage places. But they said, ‘No. We don’t need anything.’
Let me tell you about another incident. I was trying to shoot people in Bangalore for the migration theme. Suddenly I spied a bunch of people; workers, waiting. For the lorry to come and pick them up at the end of the day. One elderly man from among them came up to me and asked, ‘Why are you taking our pictures? Why are you taking pictures of the children?’ I think these people are extremely politically and socially conscious. I think they know that what they are doing is not the right thing. And this could be the reason for their nervousness and suspicion regarding photography.
Tell me a little about these migrant labourers and your project. When did you first notice these people?
SD. When I landed up in Bangalore from Delhi—that was in 2001—it was a nice city. But, suddenly, over the last two or three years, I noticed a lot of people pouring into Bangalore. And a lot of real estate activity. A real estate boom! It’s as if there are constructions everywhere you look! Every morning you see thousands and thousands of people pouring in. Like a wave. I used to wonder where they came from. They were not local people; not one among them.

Then where did they come from?

They used to come from Tamil Nadu. But that is not so now. They still come from there but there are more people coming from Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and North India.

But who brings them here?

Agents.

Then it can be called ‘trafficking’ in labour?

Yes, it is trafficking in labour. There are agents in almost all the villages of West Bengal from where these people are brought. They are all village folk and so, easy prey.

And untrained?
Mostly untrained. They are basically agricultural labourers. I wanted to find out where they lived in the city and from where they had originally come. So one day I followed them, asked them where they lived. They said they lived nearby. You won’t believe this—but they live off Airport Road! One of the poshest areas in Bangalore. Close to the airport, just behind it, there’s a huge abandoned area covered with corrugated sheet shacks. And that’s where they live. And what is still more surprising is that there is no electricity in the area. Today, there’s such a lot of talk about Bangalore. But they don’t even have electricity—the bare minimum for human. And they accept this quite normally. They get some basic food from the canteen— rice, dal, sometimes a vegetable, a piece of fish on the weekends. I asked them, ‘Where do you come from? And why do you come?’ One person said they came from Murshidabad, Bankura and Purulia—areas where agriculture has not flourished that much. One lad among the construction workers used to make terracotta horses in Panchmura of Bankura. I heard that there were people from Tamil Nadu too.
Does our government know this happens?

Yes. They definitely do. They should know. And when I told one of them that I wanted to click a photograph when they came in, he agreed at once and asked me to come the next day. One lot would be coming from Murshidabad, he said. He would be bringing them. He asked me to go to Yeshvantpura station the next morning. ‘They will get off the trains there and our tempo will bring them,’ he said. But there was an air of suspicion about him. He looked as if he wanted to say, ‘Why? Why are you clicking us suddenly? No one is bothered about us. Why are you?’ Yes, definitely an air of suspicion. And I could tell that he would definitely talk to whoever—their builder perhaps—about me. Sure enough, the next day when I went to click their photograph, the builder was present. He had the same question, ‘Why are you taking pictures?’
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