A visual tribute to migrant labourers

We, the labourers from GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force), find ways to build roads. We burrow through the mountains, cut the hills. You may wonder, who we are! We come from Jharkhand, now these roads are our home. We work in the heat, cold and rain. We work tirelessly, bearing our pain. We are labourers,” read the first few lines from Naval Thakur Mangalam’s Mazdoor Ka Jeevan.

Inscribed on the walls in black ink, these lines make for the perfect entry to ‘The road chronicles: an ode to the labourer’, an exhibition that visually narrates the journeys of nearly 90,000 unknown casual road labourers, including Mangalam, who travel every year to build roads in the upper reaches of the Himalayas for India’s Border Roads Organization (BRO).

The show, put together by Anu Sabhlok, Kausiki Sarma and Jitesh Malik has been funded by the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali.

“The idea is to show the interconnections between the journeys of the tourist or defence forces and the seasonal migration of the road labourers that makes these journeys possible,” Sabhlok, who teaches in the department of humanities and social sciences at IISER Mohali, tells Metrolife.

It all started when Sabhlok and Malik took to the Hindustan Tibet Border Roads in 2009 and saw labourer’s families camped on the roadsides. “Something inside me stirred and I felt a connection that has kept me going back year after year since then. Ethnographic research involves a deep immersion in the field — an intense involvement over many years. There are labourer families now that I know for a long time  — have seen their children getting married and bearing children of their own,” she shares.

Describing their work as an “alternative travelogue”, the team says that there are numerous travelogues written by people describing their journey to Ladakh or Kashmir, but this one “tells the stories of the working classes that travel to build the roads; that we travel on. In that sense it is an alternative travelogue.”

Adding that the main idea is to bring to the public sphere a human story of the roads in the upper Himalayas, the trio says that it also “writes into history the contributions of the labouring classes in creating strategic infrastructure for the country”.

“I am a social scientist and my research involves understanding the seasonal migration of working class populations and its impacts on their identities. Last year, Kausiki joined the team and added significantly to the wealth of visual documentation we had been doing and suggested that we take this research to the public through a photographic exhibition.

Jitesh, an artist, felt that a photographic exhibition might be static and unable to convey the movement that we want to communicate. He suggested a photo installation and helped us design it using layering and superimpositions,” Sabhlok says, adding the show is a coming together of these conversations between a social scientist, a photojournalist and an artist.

Sharing that high altitude sickness, treading dangerous terrains in the upper Himalayas along with the labours, overcoming fears, almost giving up and getting stuck in Jharkhand with a strike of the electricity department and risks of Maoist attacks were some of the challenges faced, Sabhlok says that the exhibition presents images collected over a long time and a mix of basic documentary images and professional ones shot by Kausiki.
The show is on till October 15 at Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi.

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