Drik, the progressive photo agency, Pathashala, the photography school that trains adults and children and Chobi Mela, the internationally acclaimed photo festival in Dhaka are all due to Shahidul Alam’s unflinching passion for photojournalism.
A recent letter from Alam to the Magnum photographer Raghu Rai has set me off a bit. The letter is long, but convincing. The gist is this – the Indian High Commission in Dhaka promised Alam and his associates that it would sponsor some of the exhibits at the recent Chobi Mela held in Dhaka. According to Alam, at the very last moment, the Indian High Commission reneged on its promises to participate in the photo festival, even after repeatedly suggesting to Alam that it would take part. What’s more, an exchange program involving Indian and Bangladeshi professionals has stalled thanks in no small measure to the foot-dragging in Delhi.
When attempts are being made to bridge differences and brings people together, the Indian High Commission appears to have killed a golden opportunity. How very sad. I am troubled by the way things are done in India and embarrassed that this should happen at all. It would appear that despite India’s “liberalization” programs, we still have a long, long way to go.
It was wonderful having you here at Chobi Mela III, and as ever, you were a great inspiration for the Bangladeshi photographers. I am particularly pleased with the strong participation of India in this festival. Apart from the five professional photographers, Swapan Nayak, Sudharak Olwe, Suvendu Chatterjee, Parthiv Shah and yourself, we also had work by a group of children from Dharavi, a poor neighbourhood in Mumbai, as well as films by Joshy Joseph. The presence of a bus load of visitors from India, including artists, writers and journalists, gave a very special Indian flavour to the event.
What is unfortunate however, is the fact that despite initial promises, the Indian High Commission failed to participate in the event. This is particularly sad since we had been through a similar episode in Chobi Mela II, and while cultural organisations and embassies from numerous countries with much smaller presence in the festival joined as partners, the most significant media event in Asia was bypassed by the country with the single largest contingent.
As in the previous occasion, we approached the high commission several months in advance leaving plenty of time for preparation. I was again personally given the assurance by the same senior high commission official that they would participate fully. We were told that gallery spaces and funds would be made available to facilitate the participation of the Indian artists. Financial support for the production of promotional material was also offered. It was also suggested that I should meet with the High Commissioner to finalise matters.
Accordingly, I wrote a letter to Suvendu Chatterjee, the director of Drik India, on the 19th July 2004, with copies to the High Commission official and the head of the British Council in Kolkata, confirming that the Indian High Commission would be fully involved. I also wrote a letter to the High Commissioner asking for an appointment. I have not as yet, had a reply.
Despite the fact that several meetings had taken place, and we had allocated shows to the venues promised by the High Commission, they kept delaying issuing us a formal letter confirming they would participate, saying in some cases that it would be done in ‘half an hour’. We delayed the production of the publicity material, as long as we could. Mysteriously, after having said (for several weeks) that the letter was just about to be issued, they changed their tune and on our final deadline said they hadn’t yet received a confirmation from Delhi and that we should withdraw their name from the partner list.
When I later enquired with the High Commission official as to why they had changed their tune so dramatically, the official said it had to do with the fact that my colleague Rezaur Rahman, who had been involved in all the key meetings since my initial contact, had been asked to show the High Commission the photographs, but had refused to do so. Needless to say, the Chobi Mela officials had never entered into a discussion about photographs being shown or vetted by sponsors and would never have entertained such a preposterous suggestion. Mr. Rezaur Rahman vehemently denies that such a discussion had ever taken place. When I again asked for an appointment with the High Commissioner so I could get to the bottom of this, I was refused.
A separate discussion had been going on in parallel with the Chobi Mela issue, in these meetings. Drik has a small office in India, and we are involved in an exchange programme that is supported by Fredskorpset, an initiative supported by Norad, that facilitates the exchange of professionals between partner organisations to promote South South understanding. Two young professionals from the Drik office in Dhaka and two of Drik India’s staff were to be exchanged under this programme. We had applied for visas for these four participants to the respective embassies in Dhaka and Kolkata. The Indian applicants were promptly issued long term multiple entry visas by the Bangladeshi High Commission in Kolkata. The Indian High Commission however, kept dragging the matter, and eventually, the same official I had initially spoken to, took the passports of the two Bangladeshi applicants over six weeks ago, and has since kept delaying the matter, claiming there has been a hold up in Delhi.
There is a history to this saga which needs to be mentioned. While the Indian High Commission had also expressed an interest in participating in Chobi Mela II, they expressed dissatisfaction at the fact that the festival was going to include work by the children of sex workers in Sonagachi in Kolkata. These children had been trained by a group of working class children from Bangladesh, called “Out of Focus”. There was a news item in the Indian press following this cancellation which this particular official had been angered by. I had made an application for a multiple entry visa that I required for a series of lectures that I had been asked to give in India (I had formal invitations for all these lectures and was a keynote speaker at the events). The application, which had been made shortly after this news item was published, was rejected resulting in the lecture tour being cancelled. The present power play over Drik’s visa applications appears to be another example where diplomats flex their muscles to ensure that independent media organisations in both our countries, desist from providing media content that the establishment does not fully sanction.
I find this particularly ironic when artists from both our countries have cooperated so well to put together an event that has had wide international acclaim. At a time when the world is seeking ways in which tensions between communities can be eased, it is particularly sad that the blinkered perceptions of a few bureaucrats can stifle the results of so much goodwill amongst our nations. The entire Fredskorpset programme of Drik is now facing cancellation based on the failure of the participants to obtain their visas.
I believe you and I and all independent minded citizens of our countries, need to ensure that such petty mindedness does not triumph over our efforts at regional unity. The good news is that Chobi Mela III was a resounding success, and a large part of that success is owed to the excellent participation by Indian photographers.
Dr. Shahidul Alam
Chobi Mela III