It’s almost a colonialist approach. It’s
like how the Europeans looked at sub-Saharan Africans
500 years ago.
SN: That’s because of the
physical, geographical distance. Like we have
this idea of Kashmir as a really dangerous place.
Many of us, who haven’t even been there,
think that there are bombs going off all the time
in Srinagar . . .
BS: But Kashmir has a mythic status in
the popular imagination too. We have seen it in
films, as paradise on earth and so on.
SN: Kashmir has been more in
the media. But the North East has always been
neglected. Which is why the sense of protest is
very strong there. It’s not that the common
man is creating the conflict. There are larger
political forces that mastermind these conflicts.
They’re plots made by a handful of people.
But the common people, who you see in my photos,
are the ones who suffer. This photo was also taken
in a refugee camp (Orphan Brothers). Both these
boys are students. This boy who looks at us studied
in Class IX. In a missionary school. English medium.
He is a good student. A serious one. But he, along
with his family, has been forced to move out of
their home, their town. They have been in the
refugee camp for the last three months.
SN: It’s shut. There’s
no question of a school in such a situation.
BS: There’s a lot of anger in him,
this boy . . .
SN: There is. There has to be.
SS: This concern for the refugee as a
concept has occurred a lot in the films of Ritwik
Ghatak. Subarnarekha . . . Komal Gandhar . . .
I can see some impression of that in your photographs
SN: Well, the picture of the
refugee camp is pretty much the same everywhere.
A person who has lost everything seeks shelter
in another place. That’s what being a refugee
is about. So the basic character of such a person
or his surroundings is almost always the same
in any part of the world. Secondly, Ritwik Ghatak’s
films are also based in eastern India, and there
are recognizable similarities there too—cultural,
topographical—between what he depicts in
his films and the photographs of the people that
I have taken. Like these bamboo walls . . .
BS: Yes, that’s like a leitmotif
that runs through your photographs!
SN: Absolutely. This is essentially
an east India thing.
BS: But what is different are the faces
in your photographs. They are not what we see
in the films of Ritwik Ghatak. There is a distance.
These people look ‘different’, so
SN: I have not tried to capture
the ethnic conflict, or the refugee crisis as
an issue. That would be a more journalistic project.
Here I have just tried to bring out the human
predicament, of a person displaced from his home.
And it is the character of the faces that speak
most in such situations. The pain inside. The
expression of that on the faces is paramount.
SS: This photograph of a young man playing
the guitar . . . it brings out the truth that
even in the middle of so much misery, there is
music. People are still singing songs.
BS: Life goes on . . .
SN: Exactly. Even in Ritwik Ghatak’s
films, the final message is that—life goes
on. In Ajantrik, for instance, the boy keeps playing
the instrument. Titas Ekti Nodir Naam ends with
shots of a child playing a flute and running through
paddy fields, symbolizing the continuance of life,
the continuance of civilization.
BS: Did you feel that when you
were with these people, when you photographed
them? Because ‘life goes on’ is such
SN: Well, I think I did. Such
a feeling comes from an immersion into the lives
of the people. The way I go about it . . . I obviously
do some research before going to a place. And
once I am there, I cut off all connections with
the rest of the world. I always maintain that
practice. My mobile is switched off, except when
I wish to speak to my family back home. I try
to blend in with the people in these lands, with
their environment, their life. It’s not
like I go, look and capture a few frames and come
back. In official assignments, when I have to
meet deadlines and follow specific instructions
considering the layout—four vertical shots,
four horizontal, some portraits, some half-busts
and so on—my involvement with my subject
is somewhat superficial. But what you see here
is my personal work. For these, nobody asked me
to do anything specific. In fact, I did this whole
thing at my own expense. And it was an expensive
project. Travelling in the North-East is not cheap
at all. So, it is like a personal surrender to
the ways of life practised in these parts of the
world. The joys and sorrows, the everyday-ness
of their existence becomes mine too.
SS: This girl here (Reality Protrait)
looking at you, looking at the camera, looking
at us, eventually . . . there seems to be a sort
of frustration in her look. What exactly is the
SN: It’s not just frustration.
There’s more to it. She’s also a victim
of ethnic conflict. That auto-rickshaw you see
there, destroyed, belonged to her family. They
took a loan from the bank to buy it. Her brother
used to drive it, and that was the only means
of income for her family. But they burnt the auto.
They also destroyed their home.
BS: To what extent are these posed shots?
I mean, your subjects are definitely conscious
of being photographed. They are looking at you
directly . . .
SN: Well, I talk to everyone
I photograph. Unless you talk to them, you don’t
get the right expression to capture.
BS: Is there ever a language divide?
SN: Well, not really. Everybody seems to understand
and speak some amount of Hindi in these regions.
And then, in Assam, the language is pretty close
to Bengali, my own mother tongue. And there’s
English too. Besides, you always find some local
person to be the interpreter. It’s not that
I went to all these places on my own. That’s
not possible actually. I have taken help from
different people—missionaries, local journalists,
local administration, local NGOs and even political
SS: This picture is really
appealing (Pain). Where is this?
SN: This is in Karbi Along, Assam.
His wife was killed.
BS: It’s symbolic
to have that deity there in the dark background.
SN: Yes, that’s probably
an idol of Lakshmi . . .
SS: Is there still faith?
SN: Oh absolutely! These are
very common people in the sense that they believe
in very basic things. They have a rather uncomplicated
view of life . . . farming, earning their daily
bread, family—these are the preoccupations
in their lives. And there are rituals, religious
BS: I haven’t spent
much time in the North East. I’ve just been
to Shillong, Cherrapunji . . . more as a tourist
than anything else. But I did make some friends
there. In a local bar. Local young men. There
was a perceptible resistance to the rest of India,
although very subtle. In Delhi, you may hear questions
like, ‘Are these North-Eastern people actually
Indian?’, similarly, these people in Meghalaya
mention ‘going to India’. Did you
ever encounter that?
SN: Yes, a little bit. Not everywhere
in the region though. Some parts are vehemently
independent of the ‘India concept’.
Like this really distant region in Arunachal Pradesh,
where I went to do a particular story. Outlook
was doing a feature called ‘The Four Corners
of India’. I went to one of the most peripheral
villages of Arunachal. These people are inconceivably
different from the mainstream idea of the ‘Indian’.
The government has its own way of appeasing them
actually. For instance, these villages select
or nominate a gaon-bura, or a ‘village elder’
as the head of the village. Traditional practice.
The central government gives an ‘honorary’
coat to the gaon-bura. It’s red in colour,
very official-looking. And the person who gets
the coat is so insanely proud of it. It’s
a tremendous honour. In a way, it’s cheating.
The government does nothing to uplift living conditions
in these villages, but uses the ‘honourable’
red coat to keep the people happy.