Through our lens

The Rain Gods seem to have let up for the day. Dharavi is more or less dry with a few tell-tale puddles as a proof to the onset of the monsoons. Residents go about business as usual. The sun is beginning to show through the clouds. A small group of women head towards the Urban Health Centre on 60 feet road. There is a sense of purpose in their gait, each bubbling with tales and anecdotes of their second week with the camera. They are part of an innovative program with SNEHA, that is training them to use photography to document the health of their community. The results have been just so rewarding especially for their mentors at Sneha who are determined to bring to the fore the urban health situation in the city slums. These women are Dharavi residents and have one thing in common. They are all victims of domestic violence who are either struggling at home or then have reformed to start life afreash. Komal for instance; this 30-year-old instantly points out, “please call me Vijaylakshmi, that’s the name my parents gave me. My husband’s family named me Komal,” is fighting a case against her husband in court. There is no trace of bitterness, instead only a determination to move on. “I left my husband because he was impotent,” she confides but then quickly dismisses any further discussion on her marital life and is more eager to know how she has fared in her week’s assignment.

The King and I - Photographed by Komal

The session begins with her slide show. Her photographs have a story to tell. Each has an interesting tale as she narrates her experiences. For instance the pictures of the over-flowing gutter outside her home; the massive rubbish heap infested with flies and rodents, crows and dogs with little children playing in close proximity. The very purpose of these exercises is to create an awareness of urban health issues; issues of the health of the urban poor among the average Mumbaikar, says Priya Agrawal, the program  director. And what could be a better way than to reach out through these women who are one among the several slum dwellers.  The week’s assignment was to shoot lines: Komal is the only one who seems to have adhered. Her lines stretch on railways tracks, tall buildings, erect palm trees, the Taj hotel. But amidst it all, she has proved to be a keen observer of the world around her. Be it the rubbish heap in a society in Jogeswari which also has a resident snake, or blood soaked paper she found on the tracks next to a green-grimy full gutter, several Gods’ pictures, a fine piece of embroidered cloth, city-scapes; all her colour compositions are backed with an anecdote or a story. With an eye for detail and colour, she comes across as a promising photographer. “What’s the use, this will not fetch me any income,” she says, “I wonder who will give me a job with this as I am not educated. I could probably shoot wedding pictures for those here who cannot afford expensive photoshoots.” Her extensive photo feature on Vrageshwari temple in Vasai tell a different story: two lovers fighting, a wedding in the premises, the auspicious tree, her 80-year-old grand aunt etc. There is much more than wedding photographs that Komal can do, if given a chance of course.

For Sunita it has been a long day but a happy one. “It is the day of my victory,” gushes the 24-year-old mother of three. “I got married in church today.” These may not be the end of her woes. But she is hopeful. She was only 14 when she got pregnant and upon her parents pleading she was married in court [they showed her to be 18 in desperation] to her boyfriend, and now husband Anthony. Her in-laws were never for the marriage. Later when the 26thJuly floods destroyed all her legal papers, she was left with no proof of her wedding, giving her in-laws a further chance to harass her. The church wedding however will change all that and Sunita is happy. “We are now man and wife in the eyes of God and society, the priest, sister,” she says. She too has a series of pictures to show. She proudly gives details of her assignment. A Hindu wedding in session, the bride, her clothes, her mehendi, the groom etc and few pictures of her own church ceremony held only a hours before the workshop. There is more of Sunita’s wedding in 56-year-old Jamilla assignment. The vibrant, talkative Jamilla has an opinion on everything and she instantly reaches out to the people around her with her vivacity. Ask her about her life and she solemnly says she is a widow. Her only daughter works at the neighbouring MAHAD office. Jamilla’s passion is to fight for the rights of the people around her, solve family problems, go to police stations to negotiate with the police etc. Photography is something that thrills her. As a witness at Sunita’s wedding, she takes some lovely pictures of the newly-weds. Her other pictures include a family of nine children, her own daughter, of rag pickers sorting through garbage etc. These women armed with a camera almost transform into artists with canvases painting pictures in a tone or medium that they understand best. Or in what appeals to them most.

Then there are those like Asma and Zarine who, afraid to step out into the rains lest their cameras got wet, come up with nothing to show for the week. In fact, the same concern is shared by Jamilla and Komal till they are all convinced that it is possible to use the camera even during rains. As the session progresses, each discusses her problems with the camera, of memory cards not reading, of chargers not working properly etc. They almost sound like professionals. The next round is that of Rudra, a student like them training under their teacher Sudharak who has come in for the day to share his work with these women.. The women quickly transform into eager students, drinking in details of the pictures clicked by Rudra, as they barge him with questions and doubts occasionally. They seem to have made a connect with him as they discover he is the son of a famous television actor besides, photography of course. The nearly two hour session ends with the discussion as the women disperse armed with a fresh assignment on the monsoons. It will be another week till they meet again.

Learning the nuances

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