The camera throbs with their pain, angst

Riveting Retrospective

A woman sitting with a child, tries to make another child (placed in another woman’s lap) laugh.

A teenage girl stands with her head held high, and an old man looks sharply into the cameraman’s lens as if providing a shot that is strong and riveting.

 Though belonging to different age groups and nationalities, all these individuals are captured and their photographs are displayed together as there is a common link that joins them –They are all refugees.

Captured by ace lensman Raghu Rai, the photographs showcased as part of the exhibition ‘Longing to Belong: Refugees In India’ not just celebrates World Refugee Day (June 20) but also documents human emotions as they evolve under different circumstances.

Organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the exhibition provides photography enthusiasts a chance to see how Rai captures human emotions through his keen eye. Be it the laughter of children in one of the refugee camps or the troubled face of a mother in another, Rai seizes them all in his camera fantastically and compels the viewer to relate to the grief of those who are longing to belong to India even after years of living here. 

Divided into five broad sections, the exhibition incorporates Tibetans, Sri Lankan Tamils, Somalis, Myanmarese, Afghans and Pakistani Hindu refugees. A startling fact is that most of the images are shot in Delhi, apart from the ones which take into account the voluntary repatriation and the life of Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

It is a sheer joy to see children laughing and playing at schools inside refugee centres. “Children have the capacity to live without memories. They learn to play with elements surrounding them and make their lives happy,” says Rai appreciating the school teachers in the refugee camps who keep the children engaged. This is evident in many photographs especially one where “this Burmese teacher falls reciting Humpty Dumpty... and falls down. The children copy her and fall down too and laugh. In a class of 30 to 40 children each was engaged in the activity,” recollects the photographer with a twinkle in his eyes as Metrolife asks him about any apprehensions expressed by refugees on being shot.

“O yes,” he exclaims sharing, “I was once facing two-three ladies upfront while clicking them and after a few shots, one of the Afghan woman nodded her head and said thank you which means that I could leave,” Rai laughs aloud adding, “They will not be rude to you but have their way of saying ‘it’s enough’!”

It is, therefore, the individuality of each of his subjects that Rai explores through his work. Referring to the picture of the old Afghan man taken in Wazirabad camp, Rai recalls, “The men in the centre at Wazirabad indulge in vocational activities. When they paused for a break, I felt attracted to click this Afghan man sitting on a chair dressed up in a typical Afghani attire. I focused on him and had taken just a few shots when he turned his back and I thought these were sufficient.” It is difficult for a viewer to forget  this Afghan’s expressive face and emphatic personality. 

Similarly, the young girls from Somalia leave an imprint on the mind with their youthful smiles and confident body postures. But amidst this, it is also the grim reality of their living conditions that get documented in Rai’s pictures, particularly the shanties where Rohingya refugees from Myanmar live in Okhla.     It is, however, the state of Pakistani Hindu refugees that devastates the photographer. In one of the photographs taken at Majnu ka Tilla, members of supposedly a family from Hyderabad in Sindh look in different directions. “They could neither relate to the Muslims in Pakistan nor are accepted by the Hindus in India. Even after 60 years of Partition, they have no place for themselves, which is most disturbing.” 

The exhibition is on display at IIC till June 29.

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