Life in Eastern India

If we (“we” being: Chris Huby and Arnaud De Grave) are able to present this exhibition about India it is because of some sort of an accident. Our original plan was to visit and shoot in Bangladesh via contacts in an NGO working on site, therefore getting to interesting and remote areas. It was our first planned trip together. A trip fully focused on photography, fully focused on contact with other human beings, other stories, fully focused on people under a burden a bit superior to the one carried by most “occidental” people.

However, we were stopped, right at the border. It was impossible to get out of India and back again within our time frame (about ten days) as a new Indian law imposed a minimum of two months outside of India before being able to get in again. We hoped to land in Kolkata, visit this fantastic town while getting the visa to Bangladesh and then take a train to Dhaka but we were forced to stay in India, totally powerless in front of a decision we could not really understand. All the anger in the world could not change anything about it. Farewell humanitarian wishes, farewell the discovery of Bangladesh, we had to make the most of it and improvise.

Improvisation is not a bad thing and it was decided in the plane from Paris to Kolkata (via Dubai, awful) to let it rule this trip. Anyhow it made a nice unity with the way we met, totally randomly, in a rice pad, in the middle of nowhere: Yang-Shuo, China. We had already a camera at hand though … Were we to have any doubt they would have been discarded as soon as we started to roam the streets around our small hotel. In spite of jetlag, tiredness and sickness, less than an hour after landing, some rolls of interesting pictures were already shot. Pictures of people.

Kolkata has not changed since Louis Malle’s eponymous movie from 1969. We strolled everywhere: from Kali’s temple to the flower market and the (supposedly) not too recommendable northern neighbourhoods, from traditional gâths to small shops under highways … Everywhere Kolkata’s people showed the same ancestral rhythm, the same traditions, the same welcoming spirit. Tourists are not often seen there, one man told us we were the first “white” people he saw since Mother Theresa (who died in 1997.)

After Kolkata we decided to head North to Darjeeling in the Gorkaland and its mountains, then it was towards the East and Shillong in the Meghalaya, following the border with Bangladesh … Everywhere the same welcoming spirit. These territories (except for Darjeeling, door to many treks in the Himalayan massif) are very little known and pretty badly considered by occidental people: of course, there is strictly nothing there, nothing except poor people. Moreover these areas are heavily militarized, some even require a governmental permit to enter.

Some travellers get back from India with the memory of poverty to the point of nightmare. That is not what we will remember. That is not what we want to show. The small selection of portraits in this exhibition was gathered in the streets, in the food markets, in the heart of the cities we visited. Through these faces we hope to convey a sentiment of dignity. The dignity of the people who accepted the game of photography, to let us be witnesses of their lives, often difficult lives. They have a lot to say and a lot to claim, it is a small tribute we can pay to their kindness in trying to give them a small voice throughout our images. They will live inside our hearts and hopefully a bit in our portraits.

To see the other part of the exhibition go to Chris’ set of picture here.