Dark is beautiful

Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 10 June 2017

Mahesh Shantaram’s photographs hold a magnifying glass over society’s perception of the African community and their struggles

Every now and then a news pops up about an African national being unjustly treated on Indian streets — insulted, thrashed, beaten up and isolated. All that it results in is outrage and rhetorical questions like ‘Are Indians racists?’ Discrimination on the basis of skin colour is a deep-rooted evil not just plaguing our country but societies all over the world. The only way out perhaps is to bring these inequalities to the fore. 

Mahesh Shantaram, a Bengaluru-based photographer, is doing it through his exhibition — The African Portraits, currently on at Tasveer Gallery, New Delhi. 

The African Portraits documents the lives of African students living in India and the trigger for this series was the shocking attack on a young Tanzanian woman by a mob in Bengaluru in January last year. It affected Shantaram so much that he set out on a project to increase awareness of the everyday racism and discrimination faced by Africans in our country. 

Says he, “It was a direct response to the attack on the Tanzanian woman.”  Shantaram’s photographs hold a magnifying glass over people’s mindset, society’s perception of the African people and their day-to-day struggles. Shantaram, who has travelled across cities like Jaipur, Delhi and Manipal to record their experiences, says, “Africans face everyday racism in India. When that blows up into a serious incident, it becomes news. As an African in India, you lead the life of a third-class citizen. The freedom to eat, pray, and love is restricted.” 

With this project, Shantaram, a subjective-documentary photographer has turned to formal portraiture for the first time. He has chosen to particularly focus on students, as they are an extremely small and vulnerable group; having nowhere to go, to seek redressal for their injustices in a society that is so prejudiced against them.  

“I find it sad when people ask me to comment on the life of Africans in India. Why should I speak on their behalf? Indians, including journalists, should not feel shy to approach them and talk to them as equals. To be frank, they are craving for the company of Indians. They would welcome it if approached for a conversation. But over time, the trust levels have dropped drastically,” he adds. 

His emotionally resonant portraits force viewers to look beyond stereotypes and attempt to bring the stories of African students to the conscious attention of the larger Indian public. “Africans are largely invisible in society. So many of my friends feel unsafe and unwelcome in public spaces. I do believe that my photo project and exhibition makes the invisible visible. Now we can all come together and acknowledge the Africans in our midst. When the show was held in Bengaluru and now when it’s on in Delhi, people were surprised to see so many Africans under one roof. It is unusual to find black people in a social space like an art gallery. That itself works towards changing attitudes,” quips Shantaram. 

Drawing attention to the individuality and humanity of his subjects, The African Portraits highlight the necessity of acknowledging and addressing the racism they face — and point towards the plurality of Africans, who hail from several different countries and societies and are nevertheless unfairly and ignorantly branded in India by the continent of their origin and the colour of their skin.

Follow the writer on Twitter @amu_prasad

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