Glass half full in Dhaka

First view of Dhaka . Photograph©Chulie de Silva

My mother laughed and said. We used to call you clumsy, and now look where Clumsy is going.  I had just told her I was going to work in Dhaka. I was the Clumsy in the family and it has not been easy for me to shed that label within my family.  As the plane taking me to Dhaka starts descending and I see the outlines of some partly submerged land, I think about the labelling of Bangladesh.  Maybe I am at last getting to the point when I will shed the label and I suppose so will Bangladesh too.

 All I had to say was I was going to Dhaka and many of my friends were aghast!!!  –Who would CHOOSE to go to work in Dhaka? one asked. Well, ME for starters, I said but that wasn’t good enough.  There was the water, typhoid, dengue, road accidents, high crime rate (well we have all that in Sri Lanka too), and my sister dear screamed all the way from Brisbane “What’s with you – what happens if you go there and die – (well,  I could die in Colombo too).  In the middle of all this the sons, Nickie and and Mike Udabage from Sydney said “it’s exciting go,” and then my ears picked up when Indrajit Coomaraswamy in a meeting looking at South Asia said Bangladesh is the happening country.

I watched closely my face pressed to the window like a child, the partly submerged land, next the neat lego box like buildings as we descend. Is this the happening country?  Cyclically, every seven years, I’ve changed course, taking that untraveled road. Was Dhaka going to be my new adventure?

Digital Bangladesh? Woman chats while companions prepare lunch on the pavement. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Down on land, I see much has changed for the better since I last visited in 2006, but much remains the same too. … it is still a teeming vehicle packed city. Cars, brightly painted rickshaws, street vendors, and the women in bright salwars — vehicles weave in and out from what looks like impossible situations. I will no longer grumble about Colombo traffic. It is a teeming city, bursting at the seams, – a tad difficult for us islanders who are used to lesser crowded cities to take in. But this is very much the Majority World – a new label attached by Shahidul Alam to replace the tacky branding of the colonial masters like the “Third World,” “LDCs” etc .

The Drik Photo Library where I am attached to is the orgnaisation that Shahidul Alam formed 21 years ago. It has certainly come of age in style, its ethos intact and yes, very much an exciting happening organization to be in. Started as a homely business addressing social injustices, raising civic awareness through creative visual storytelling, the parent organization Drik has spawned Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, the teaching arm; Chobi Mela, the international photography festival; Majority World, photo library and DrikNews, the visual news agency to form a unique media institute whose reach and impact has gone beyond the Asian borders to Africa, Europe, Latin America and Australia.

At Drik I am warmly welcomed – so many familiar faces as I’ve long been an admirer of the company. I am literally plunged into the world of the thinking creative photographer. Six International student interns – interestingly 21 years old too, present their work before departure. They could have done their internship in the States I hear, but decided on Dhaka after a presentation made in China by Shahidul Alam. Having battled with the usual trials and tribulations in a new country, Shen Shen pluckily says “I turned my misfortune to fortune.” Then there were the goodbyes to the ones who had been with Drik and were moving to better paid jobs. Incredibly, this is seen not as a negative but as a plus for the organization that their products are moving ahead to better paid jobs.

From left Shahidul Alam, Francis Duleep de Silva, Rahnuma Ahmad and Fabiene. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Among the welcome/farewell dinners I meet Fabiene working for her PhD from Brazil. She is quite at home in saree and Salwar lives outside the city, travels by local transport and is learning Bangla. Rahnuma, my friend, the learned anthropologist raises her eyebrows and looks at me knowingly and says I should try travelling with Fabiene.

The two Danish students and I sit through presentations of the Pathshala students. We don’t understand the language much, but the photographs the will to document social ills, the hot discussions that follow are impressive. In the last month alone two students have won international awards, keeping the Drik flag flying in the photography world.

As I am taken around and introduced I discover that Drik’s different departments are hives of activity. The AV department was just going off to do documentary films on child marriage in Nepal, India, Pakistan about the time I joined. These films were being put together skillfully using still photographs and voice cuts of interviews. By last week I was lucky enough to sit with them while the captions were being done on the heartbreaking story from Pakistan. We don’t have this issue in Sri Lanka, of girls being given in marriage as young as 12 years. But here parents are often driven by poverty and community pressure to do so.

I am delighted when I get to sit with the team selecting photos taken by early teenagers in yet another interesting and worthwhile project. These kids have not held a camera two weeks ago. Yet, after their training the images they have produced are strong

Learning by doing. Open air classroom. Photograph©Habibul Haque

The final selection for the exhibition that will follow is tough. This is the follow on project of a successful “Do you see my world.” project where UNICEF is partnering with Drik. Inside me, my heart cries out as I work with two colleagues to prepare short bios for these kids who have seen the dark side of life at such a tender age.

Balanced focus. Photograph©Habibul Haque

Then there is the Chobi Mela the International festival of photography that I am here for. It promises to be a visually amazing collection of 27 Print exhibits, 19 video installations and many mobile exhibitions that will tour the country taking the work to the wider public.

Alam sees this unique exhibition as a birthplace of ideas, a platform for debate. As has been said for Majority World, another project developed by Drik, other festivals have something to show. Chobi Mela has something to say.

As I communicate with artists, visitors, journalists I meet online Dick Doughty, Managing Editor of Saudi Aramco World. He writes, I am drawn back to Chobi Mela not only because in it there is a quality of animus, a strong spirit of social engagement, but also because I think Shahidul has been a catalyst for something extraordinarily important – a nascent “Dhaka School” in documentary photography that has only begun to articulate its messages. I feel privileged to have my rather passing association with it all.

My office at Drik is also the library and I am surrounded by books on photography, some autographed, some not but all are fascinating. I pick up one at random as my IT colleague fixes my Internet connection. It is the “Amerasia journal, vol.34, no.1 focusing on the Majority World. It quotes from a 2004, blog piece of Alam titled Power of Culture: Bangladeshi Spirit. “Culture glides through people’s consciousness, breaking along its banks, accumulating and depositing silt, meandering through paths of least resistance, changing route, drying up, spilling its banks, forever flowing like a great river. Islands form and are washed away. Isolated pockets get left behind. It nurtures, nourishes and destroys. Ideas move with the wind and the counter currents.

Alam is the Managing Director who cycles to office rain or sunshine. As I witness the first heavy downpour that floods the street and Drik offices he shrugs it aside saying “poshla brishti” – passing shower, wait for the real thing. When the real thing happens a couple of days later it is one of those infamous “depressions in the bay of Bengal.” It rains, no pours heavily for two days, roads are flooded. I stay inside snug as a bug. But Alam has been out in the rain with his camera and sends all staff a photo.

Leaf in rain. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld.

Alam not only defines the Majority World by what it has than what it lacks; he sees beauty when I see muddy flooded streets. There is a lot learn.

The glass is definitely more than half full.


11 thoughts on “Glass half full in Dhaka

  1. I can only wonder what you’ll be doing in another seven years as what you are doing now is so stimulating intellectually, artistically, physically and in every way. They say to push your brain to stay healthy; you are now at your peak of health, Chuli. I can tell you are enjoying it as much as I’m enjoying hearing about it.

  2. While you are there, try to find an echo of the ‘olinda keliya’ board game.
    “Olinda thibenney koi koi desay ?
    Olinda thibenney Bangali-desay
    Genath sadannay koi koi desay ?
    Genath sadannay, Sinhala desay”

    The game was played by royalty, using pearls. It became a folk game using “olinda” seeds. But what has Bangali Desa have to with the “Olinda”??

  3. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Sri Lanka: A Photographer’s Journey To Dhaka

  4. Chulie, It’s nice to see you back in a job, in the employment you prefered and that you were gromed for. A commendable piece of information on B’desh which is in a way a mixed story and a journalistic approach to your activities in Dhaka.

  5. I see you are recovering from the flu. love the ‘ Digital Bangladesh’ photo.

    over here someone reported a coconut plucker, halfway up a steep coconut tree, negotiating another plucking deal over his mobi phone, while hanging in mid air.

  6. Chulie, I am inspired by your embrace of newness and your courage to take different pathways. You are redefining for all of us what “retirement” might and should look like. Lucky Drik and my best wishes to Shahidul.

  7. Hi Chulie!!
    Loved the way you’ve looked at Dhaka! 😀 It was a really enjoyable read – great to know that you are enjoying your work at DRIK. Looking forward to more entries on your stay in Bangladesh!

  8. Hi Chulie

    Lovely piece, and it looks as though you already understand the beauty in Bangladesh. I am in Dhaka till 5 November and would love to meet you, if I know where to find you. I am on mobile 0173-3025400.

    Best wishes in your new job,

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