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Swapan Nayak | Interview
Swapan Nayak in conversation with Souvik Sarkar and Bishan Samaddar
BS: 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.

BS: School?

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 as well.

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 to speak.

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 a platitude!

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 story here?

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 leaders.

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? In God?

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 festivals.

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.
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