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Saibal Das | Interview
What did you tell him?

I said, ‘It is nothing. This construction boom . . . I want to click.’ I can’t tell them the truth, you know. I cannot, of course, say that I have come to click pictures of your ‘lifestyle’! The exploitation and the hardship. The conditions you live and work in . . . how you just survive at the edge. The only advantage I had while speaking to them was that they spoke Bengali.

That was helpful?

Definitely, very helpful. It was a plus point.

But the builder? He was local?

No, not local. He was from UP. ‘Kya baat hai? Yahan photo kyon khich rahe hain?’ or something like that.
At that time you were not associated with the Outlook? Or were you?

Yes, I was. Actually another reason for my developing this interest is the sudden change in the landscape of Bangalore. One such area is Sarjapur road; another is in front of the electronic city—Hossur Road. The landscape is changing very fast. There was something I noticed on Old Madras road too. Every morning a tempo would come, people hanging from its sides. Men with wives, with kids and a machine for breaking concrete. It was the same tempo and the same machine every day. The machine would be somehow squished in there amidst all the people. Equally squished! I used to wonder where they came from and where they lived. Another thing, on most days when I was traveling by train, I couldn’t help noticing that down below the bridge, there were slums covered with plastic sheets. I used to wonder how I could go to these slums. One day, somehow, I have to go there, I thought. When I started this work, someone suggested that I talk to an organization called Labour Net. An NGO. I talked to them and they said that they would take me to the Gulbarga colony the next day. You will not believe it! They took me to that same place I used to see from the train and would want to visit—an abandoned burial ground. That’s where the labourers lived.
What is an abandoned burial ground?

It’s a place where no one is buried any more.

What sort of a burial ground was it? Christian? Muslim?

No, no, mostly Hindus. Because there, Hindus too bury their dead.
Really? That’s interesting.

In Hossur Road too there’s a huge burial ground where one portion is for the Muslims, one for the Christians and one for the Hindus.

So these people stay on that burial ground?

Oh yes, and it’s really funny to see how some of them have turned these graves into sofas for their living rooms, into dining tables elsewhere. It was like that in all houses.

Have you clicked pictures of that?

Yes.
Your work as a photo journalist and the development of your own self as a political person, as an individual, as a sensitive human being—are these two things interrelated?
I always wanted to take pictures of survival, of how people survive. And about the struggle of these people. You might call this left-oriented. I don’t know. But the way the media is projecting society today is not true. It’s not the real society at all. It may be true for a few people but it is not so for society as a whole. Just get out of the city. Go to the fringes of this same city. There, people have been living under the same conditions for years. And their struggle has not changed over the all that time. And I don’t think that the struggle will change in the next generation.
But why do you think this has happened because of the media? Why? When? Tell me why this has happened.

I don’t really know why. I find people are no longer interested in seeing the poverty or knowing why the cotton mills of Bombay are closing down. They are more interested in seeing and listening to what is happening in the shopping malls.

But who decides what people are interested in seeing and listening? Do you think people are like this? We have heard this controversy raging for some time regarding television. We have seen in the past that when there is some serious entertainment, people just don’t watch.
No, they don’t want to. I’m giving you a very simple example. How many people listen to World Space? I think people are more interested in listening to FM. I really don’t know who exactly decides this. I think it’s the media that is, at least, to some extent responsible for this. Why is the media feeding these things to the people every day? Why can’t you see an Indian Express on the newsstand? Why is the Times of India there instead? It’s only Indian Express that seems to be doing something serious. That newspaper alone is providing some exhibition of the World Press. Which newspaper today has a world press photo, tell me? I think that today’s media is largely responsible for what’s happening. I don’t think it’s necessary for a newspaper to tell us every morning which shopping mall is coming up where and which multiplex is showing what movie.
Coming back to your own political development. I want to know where it all started off. When did the consciousness start? Was there anything in your childhood? Your family background?
The first photograph of mine that was printed in any newspaper was in The Telegraph, on the Edit page. I still remember. In 1985-86. It was about roaming the streets of Calcutta, possibly shot in the Park Street, behind St Xavier’s College—just outside the walls. A mother and her child sleeping, the child’s arms wrapped around a discarded doll. I was a freelancer then. I used to go to all the newspapers and show them my work. I was like any other photographer of my age. The Telegraph’s Subir Roy—he was assistant editor at that time—kept some of my photographs. That one was published on the Edit page. I still remember the caption. Calcutta sleeps on the streets. That was my first publication and it showed my way of looking at a subject.

But this ‘way of looking’, this ‘shaping’ as we call it—there is a continuity in this. It is a continuous process. This process vis-a-vis your education, your family—I am trying to understand where it all started off. What sort of atmosphere was there in your house? What were you studying at that time? What were you reading?

There definitely was an ‘atmosphere’ in our house! Although there was no political affiliation per se in the entire household.
What did your father do?

My father had a family business and he was also an amateur photographer. The first and the most important thing was the atmosphere at home. There was photography at home so my interest started off there. My father had a cousin. That cousin, his brother-in-law and my father—the three of them used to take pictures. They used to process, paint. We had a darkroom. And, sometimes, I too was allowed to enter the darkroom. At other times I was asked to sit outside with the watch and tell them the time because they were processing the films. So that was the beginning. Right from my birth, I have seen photography being done at home. Why I suddenly started taking pictures like I do is perhaps because I was born in Calcutta.
What does that mean?

That growing up in Calcutta was perhaps not only about poverty. How shall I put it? There is still a human quality about this city, there is still a sense of inter-relationships which has remained.
Calcutta continues to remain hospitable. In the old-fashioned sense of the word. People go out of their way to ‘make time’ for other people.

Yes, definitely. Hospitable is the word.

Elsewhere, things happen very fast. People have to quickly move on to the next assignment. But here, we take things much more easy. Here if, say, I am doing a documentary on you, it would be a whole process. I would like to get to know you, see if you are comfortable, spend time talking, understanding, not just work within a given brief . . . something that in another city may be considered a waste of time . . . .

Yes. ‘Why waste time? Where do I have time to spare?’ That’s the attitude.

So, in some kind of old-fashioned way and also for the kind of photography you do, you have to, I am sure, go back to building a relationship?
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