Poignant frames capture lives rent asunder

Rebuilding Uttarakhand

When a cloud burst and flash floods struck Uttarakhand last year, most of us city-dwellers treated it as ‘another natural disaster’ that affected a different part of the world with little or no implication on our lives in any way.

But the horror that played out on our television screens, the angry, swirling waters that swept away over 10,000 people, rendered several homeless and landless and looking for that proverbial ‘twig’ to hold on to and survive.

Recently, Oxfam, an international poverty-alleviation organisation, brought the reality closer home with a photo exhibition on the tragedy in the Himalayan State. As part of their #RebuildUttarakhand initiative, Oxfam India put up a comprehensive visual essay ‘Live the story of struggle and resilience through a lens – Photographed and Curated by Sharbendu De’ at Select Citywalk, Saket. The aim was to sensitise the mall-going populace of Delhi to the tragedy that struck next door and contribute to the mammoth reconstruction effort.

The exhibition garnered a good response with many Delhiites coming forward to help.

It goes to the credit of documentary photographer Sharbendu De, who visited Uttarakhand first in 2013 and again this year, at the behest of Oxfam, to have approached the subject in a most sensitive and appreciation-worthy manner. There were no explicit pictures of the death and gore that a calamity of this scale obviously involved, but engaging documentary-style photo essays and portraits of the affected people. 

“We were clear from the very beginning that we don’t want to come across as an organisation predating on or exploiting the circumstances of these people. A visitor, who is far-removed from the tragedy, should not feel repulsed by the photographs but rather empathise with these humble persons who have undergone so much and are yet striving to rebuild their lives,” explains the teacher in photography at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Getting these extremely shy mountain-dwellers to pose for an exhibition on them was, however, no mean task. De says that with media persons from the world over flooding them post the incident, they became even more averse to the camera, convinced that it will not bring any benefit to them. “I had to persuade people like Bundi Lal (a resident of Rudraprayag) to open up and share their stories with me,” says De pointing to a photograph of a man holding on to an orange sapling.

“To tell a stranger that you don’t have food to provide to your children, and an orange sapling is all that you have of your once-flourishing farmlands, can’t be easy,” he poignantly adds.

At the same time, there were pictorial displays of success stories resulting from Oxfam’s efforts as well. Women in the rural areas of the state climb trees several feet tall, daily, to fetch fodder for their livestock. Shanti Rana of Srinagar district fell and broke her back from one such climb. Oxfam has now provided her with napier grass, a plant not native to the region, but grows fast and makes for good fodder for domestic animals.

Shanti and her husband Chandradev Rana posed for De in a typical studio-style portrait with a black backdrop. The writer-photographer says, “Uttarakhand has been a lesson to me in sociology and cultural studies as well. The women here toil the whole day in farms, but only the men are called ‘farmers’.”

Surely, his photographs were a lesson in many aspects of life to visitors to the exhibition as well.

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