|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
|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
|What is an abandoned burial
It’s a place where no one is buried any more.
What sort of a burial ground was it? Christian?
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?
|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
|But why do you think this has happened
because of the media? Why? When? Tell me why this
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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