The Grandmother & the “Kabakuruththuwa”

Sri Lankan grandmother 3244 #photography #SriLanka by Shahidul Alam

Sri Lankan grandmother  by Shahidul Alam

One burnt saucepan, 20 pages of editing, half a dozen lumosity exercises later am bored. This is life after retirement. I should probably jump on the treadmill but it is easier to turn to FB and there she was — a portrait of a Sri Lankan grandmother  by the Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam

The years fall back as I gazed at this poised and composed lady as she sits against a wattle and daub wall. The specks of white must be flecks of sunshine behind her but that doesn’t seem to bring a smile to her face. There is a grim acceptance in her lined face. I notice the long nose and the earrings. It’s not difficult to imagine that she would have been pretty and had seen better days in her life. Like the Afghan girl, she had no name. So why was I smitten about this image out of the stream of photos Alam had been posting?

Her stance, her jacket with long sleeves, the pleats of her cloth at the waist, the ease with which she sat,  flooded me with memories of my great grandmother, grandmothers and grand aunts. They all wore the same type of the traditional jacket, called the “Kabakuruththuwa.” This they wore with a long cloth, called a Kambaya.  which is not like a sarong or lungi and underneath the jacket, a cotton home made bra that my grandma called the “bosthorokkey.” Not sure if this is corruption of a Portuguese or Dutch word. Both jackets, and home made bosthorkkey’s are hardly seen now as most village grandmothers now wear dresses or skirts and blouses that one can buy off the peg.

The Kabakuruthtuwa is the traditional jacket worn mostly by women of the “Karava clan  of Sri Lanka.

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a "Kabakuruththu" in  Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Lily Nona, probably the last lady to wear a “Kabakuruththu” in
Hikkaduwa. 27 Aug. 2013.Photograph©Chulie de Silva

It is a uniquely designed jacket, cropped just below the waist with  no shoulder seams. The V neckline is edged with lace and the sleeves are set off the shoulder with long fitting cuffs. In the old days this lace would be hand woven “beeralu”  lace, also called renda or pillow lace, which my grandmother weaved at home. Introduced by the Portuguese, the making of this lace has been revived now as a cottage industry and the lace is being sold on too. The more dressy versions of the Kabakuruththuwas often have pin tucks and  lace inserts. see: women making Beeralu lace and wearing jackets with the lace.

Lily’s and Alam’s grandmother’s jacket is held with safety pins like most everyday wear ones, but my great grandmother Annie Dissanayake, befitting the daughter-in-law of Mudaliyar Andris Perera Abhaya Karunaratne Dissanayake  wore garnet or ruby ones on her jackets. These were designed along the same lines as cuff links to hold the sides together. They used to call the gems “Rathu keta” meaning red stones.  In later life these fasteners of my great grand mother were turned into ear rings and gifted to her great-grand kids.

Dissanayake Waluwa family taken on my great grandmother Annie's 75th birthday. Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

Dissanayake Waluwa family photo taken on my great grandmother Annie’s 75th birthday. She is in the middle with her 5 daughters, grandchildren and great grand children. The odd bod with the feet sticking out is yours truly! Photo copyright Chulie de Silva.

My Mum never got into one, though I got a couple stitched — one in pink and one in white with lace and pin tucks and wore them with Malaysian batik sarongs when we lived in Penang. Now that I have reached the senior citizen’s position of being a grandma, I should get some Kabauruththu and a couple of kamabayas — after all they lend themselves beautifully to expanding waist lines. …

A personal odyssey: In search of Kalpana Chakma

Magnfied view of leaf at bazaar where Kalpana and Lieutenant Ferdous had an altercation shortly before her disappearance. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Magnfied view of leaf at bazaar where Kalpana and Lieutenant Ferdous had an altercation shortly before her disappearance. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The brilliance of visual documentary combined with meticulous research in the photo-forensic study “In search of Kalpana Chakma” breaks a painful silence of the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma, an outspoken indigenous Bangladeshi woman who fought for the rights of her people.

Hand of Kalpana’s brother Kalindi Kumar Chakma. He mentions how the torch light reflected from his hand lit up Lieutenant Ferdous’ face. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hand of Kalpana’s brother Kalindi Kumar Chakma. He mentions how the torch light reflected from his hand lit up Lieutenant Ferdous’ face. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Kalindi Kumar Chakma, a witness to the forcible capture of his sister 17 years ago, will inaugurate the exhibition at Drik Gallery on 12 June 2013, at 6:00 pm. The event being held on Kalpana Chakma Abduction Day is in solidarity with events organised on this day in three Zilla’s of Chittagong HIll Tracts where generally, no such show is made by Bangali. The show will be open to visitors till the 21 June 2013 at the Drik Gallery, House 58, Road 15 A (new) Dhanmondi, Dhaka 1209.

Kalpana’s brother, who was also taken away, in the paddy field they had walked through that night. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Kalpana’s brother, who was also taken away, in the paddy field they had walked through that night. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The architects of the study are Shahidul Alam, photojournalist, activist and scientist and Saydia Gulrukh, a social scientist, activist and journalist. They present not only a visually engaging exhibition but also a detailed examination and a re-enactment of an issue that has been conveniently obscured by successive Bangladeshi governments.

Kalpana’s sister-in-law who was there when she was abducted. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam

Kalpana’s sister-in-law who was there when she was abducted. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Shahidul Alam

As journalists, Saydia and I have tried to follow every lead possible, through every means possible, to speak to every key player in the story,” says Alam.  They have traced obscure links, overcoming fears of repercussions, to reviving lost contacts, building trust, locating documents that were inaccessible. “From the paharis to the settlers, from government officials to military big wigs, from lawyers, to local bystanders, we have searched for clues wherever the slightest lead existed.”

Edge of ribbon Kalpana wore. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Edge of ribbon Kalpana wore. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Kalpana’s experiences, last moments are poignantly dressed and presented via everyday ordinary things  – a ribbon that would have adorned her hair, a favourite shoe, the mosquito net she slept under, her brother’s palm which reflected the torch light that lit up the alleged abductor Lieutenant Ferdous’ face – all transformed using a full spectrum of forensic options and shaped for interpretation in this exhibition by Alam, the scientist.

Segment of Kalpana’s shoe. Cyan excitation, Green radiation. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Segment of Kalpana’s shoe. Cyan excitation, Green radiation. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

“ I have extracted visual fragments using lights, filters and lenses to get the data to yield images. Working in Tokyo, using printing techniques not yet made public, says Alam the photographer.  “I’ve rendered on paper imagery that describes in light and shade, what those silent witnesses have tried to say”

The word ‘fear’ written in Kalpana’s diary. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The word ‘fear’ written in Kalpana’s diary. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The images he has created, while based upon complex scientific procedures, does not ‘prove’ anything. The objects he had photographed, while silent witnesses, had not ‘seen’ the crime. The artifacts, interviews, videos and photographs Alam and Gulrukh present are not ‘evidence’. But it opens a rich forum for dissent and effectively shatters the silence successive Bangladeshi governments, whether civilian or military backed, has carefully nurtured for the seventeen long years.

The exhibition is the fourth in the series “No more”, a public awareness campaign of Drik PLC.


The exhibition opening will be live on at 1800 hrs (GMT +6).

See also: Searching for Kalpana Chakma on ShahidulNews;

International Media Contact: Chulie de Silva:

Raghu Rai: shooting from the heart

Legendary Indian Photographer Raghu Rai at the launch of his book "Bangladesh: The price of freedom" at the Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 Dec. 2012. Photo Chulie de Silva

Legendary Indian photographer and photojournalist Raghu Rai at the launch of his book “Bangladesh: The price of freedom” at the Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 Dec. 2012. Photo Chulie de Silva

The lady in red leaned forward, looked into Raghu Rais eyes and asked “So is it the photographer’s eye that matters?”

Rai put his hand on his heart and said “No, not the eye, photos are taken with my heart. The eye is connected to the heart.

One only needs to take a look at his collection of images in the  book  and exhibition “Bangladesh: price of freedom” he launched at the Bengal Gallery to see how true his words are.

Banner at the launch of Raghu Rai's book "Bangladesh: the price of freedom." at the  Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 December, 2012. Photo Chulie de Silva

Banner at the launch of Raghu Rai’s book “Bangladesh: the price of freedom.” at the Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 December, 2012. Photo Chulie de Silva

The book was not available but in the exhibition catalogue he said “It was August and monsoon was at its peak, the sky was a deep grey and it rained all the way. The border was not just porous; it was overflowing from all sides. The refugees with their meagre belongings were pouring in. Once in a while people appeared in bullock carts. Most were drenched and soaked in rain, and overwhelmed with suffering and fatigue. There was a kind of silence – no one talked. There was nothing the others did not know. It was a national tragedy common to all.”

The sound of silence was with him four decades after.  In his short speech at the book launch the pain surfaced as he remembered poignantly, ” the silence was so painful – amazing and unbelievable. … I was suffering.”

The finding of negatives of these 1971 images that were thought to be lost is recounted by Shahidul Alam in his blog Shahidulnews. “. … the significance of newfound work by the great image maker would have been exciting in itself. While reliving the torment was painful, I couldn’t help being awed by the enormity of the find. And what a find!”

In the foreword to the book Alam says “They say photographs tell more of the observer than the observed. It is this gentle but probing eye that holds these frames together. An eye that watches, from close up, but ever so lightly. Raghu tiptoes delicately through this muddy path. Careful not to let his penetrating gaze leave shards that might cut. But the gaze is unrelenting all the same. A lonely mother by the root of a giant banyan tree, is as carefully lifted onto his frame, as the smiling muktijoddha playing with his new found pet rabbit. It is the human condition stripped bare. Revealing all, but still holding secrets. Secrets in those eyes, that carry the burden of near ones lost, of homes torn asunder, of journeys leading nowhere. Eyes that close without sleeping.”

Alam’s foreword is a must read for all before visiting the exhibition. His summing up succinct- “There is the sadness of loss, and the joy of victory, but there is no staged heroic imagery. Rai photographs the frailty of people, even fighters. An unsure young Mukti, barely taller than his gun stands by a fluttering flag. His posture giving away his rural origins. These are the heroes who will never have roads named after them. Who will never assert their ‘rights’ as muktijoddhas. Who will return to the paddy fields. It is this ability to capture the quintessential moment, where a fraction of a second becomes the unique signifier of a time. The fleeting moment that becomes timeless, that makes Rai the artist that he is. It is not a war that he has photographed, but humanity itself.”

'A photograph has to be a 'Dharshana"/Raghu Rai.Banner detail at the launch of Raghu Rai's book "Bangladesh: the price of freedom." at the Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 Dec. 2012.. Photo Chulie de Silva

‘A photograph has to be a ‘Dharshana”/Raghu Rai.
Banner detail at the launch of Raghu Rai’s book “Bangladesh: the price of freedom.” at the Bengal Gallery, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 7 Dec. 2012.. Photo Chulie de Silva

Raghu Rai joined Magnum Photos in 1977 as a Correspondent. 

“A photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever.”/ Raghu Rai

DrikDNA Newsletter August-September 2012

This is a newsletter I write for Drik, Bangladesh. In a way, it is a part of my Drik Diary. Captured in it are many memories of my colleagues and friends here. The night before Drik Day the place was a hive of activity. The excitement was palpable. I hope it gives you a glimpse of my life@Drik and this exciting one stop shop for visual solutions.

For past newsletters see:

For more on Drik:

Picturing the world with

Today,15 May is the day we were supposed to join thousands around the world to use the power of photography to create, share and compare perspectives on daily life. I had been following intermittently and knew it was today but other than charging the battery hastily in the morning there was little chance to pick up a camera and go wandering on a heavy work day.

Just after 5pm I made my escape – but by then chances of catching something new was slim — where and what to photograph. What should I remember of this day?

There were the visitors to the World Press Photo 2012 exhibition:

Visitors at the World Press Photo exhibition at Drik Gallery 2. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 15 May 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

Then the street outside the Drik office and my oft used environmentally friendly transport – the rickshaws;

Colourful rickshaws add to traffic woes on the street outside Drik office. Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 15 May 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

I also met the talented duo of photographers just outside the gate at Drik. They were more than amused that I was even thinking of submitting photos to the

Photographer friends Sayed Asif Mahmud and Arifur Rahman just outside the Drik Office. Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 15 May, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

The man at my favourite corner shop didn’t want to be photographed and as I walked past the new Apple computer shop, I saw this little girl so engrossed in her computer.

4 year old Rabita engrossed in her computer game at a her father’s shop. Dhanmondi, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 15 May, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

As I looked at her through the glass door, she raised her head, winked at me and smiled. I met her Mum inside and asked for permission to take her photo. She politely greeted me, when requested by her Mum. But having done that, 4-year old Rabita was back at her computer in a jiffy. She completely immersed herself in her computer game, and scarcely gave me a glance as I struggled to catch a good shot of her. This was a truly a born into the techie world digital citizen, like my own granddaughter Tara. Well, the photos today will preserve the day in my memory.

Thanks for prodding us out with our cameras. Good memories to hold on to.

join thousands around the world in using the power of photography to create, share and compare perspectives on daily life! Don’t miss it! You can upload your

The Supermoon over Lalmatia, Dhaka.

This weekend brought the biggest, brightest full moon for 100 years and right on Vesak Day.  This moon’s closest approach to the earth in its elliptical orbit resulted in the largest apparent size as seen by us earthlings.  Legends of the full moon’s effect on humans have long been debated.  Interestingly the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” are derived from the same Latin root that gives us the word “lunar.” People have often attributed intermittent insanity to the phases of the moon.

A perigee moon, or supermoon, rises above the apartment buildings over Lalmatia, Dhaka. May 6, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

The tsunami happened on a full moon day, and this last weekend astrologers were happily predicting an intense emotionally packed weekend.  Although increased risk of events such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were also predicted none of that came to pass.

Frescoe of the birth of Lord Buddha, Kumarakande Rajamaha Vihara, Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka. 21 January, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva

Here in Dhaka, they call it Buddha Purnima or Buddha’s birthday. Most here in Dhaka  have only a feint idea of Buddhism or what Vesak means to Buddhists. They are not that different from my co-workers in a library in Liverpool, UK. Many at that time knew little about Buddhism. I recalled how then my friend Angela tried to help me as I struggled to explain to a row of blank English faces what Buddhism was.  She butted in saying “To know what Buddhism is you need to understand what this Buddha fellow (pronounced fellah)  said….”

Buddhism thrived in Bangladesh region till the 12th century AD, an officially it is the third major religion. In the Chittagong division Buddhists make up about 12% of the population. The supermoon probably had some effect because I ended up visiting the Basabo Buddhist Monastery in Dhaka. My visit was arranged by my friend and colleague  who is a Hindu and his wife a Muslim.  We  didn’t think of it then but as I write now I realise  that we three represented the three major religions in Bangladesh.

The bronze Buddha statue at Basabo Buddhist Monastery, Dhaka. May 6, 2012.

The upright large bronze statue was a gift from Myanmar (Burma) to the monastery. Dhaka, Bangladesh. May 6, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva.

There might be only a few Buddhists in Dhaka but the monastery was packed with people.  It reminded me of past Vesak’s in Sri Lanka when we used to walk across Colombo to see the pandals.

The illuminated Buddha Statue on Vesak Day. Dhaka, Bangladesh. May 6, 2012. Photograph Chulie de Silva.

The lights came on as we left, with crowds still streaming in.  They came not dressed in white except for one elderly lady I saw lighting joss sticks. The clothes were colourful as always and there were plenty of cameras clicking away. My friends from Chittagong knew the young scholar priest Rev. Dharmananda and all of us joined another Buddhist who also came from Chittagong in a small ceremony to remember and bless our dead relatives. The monastery commenced in 1949 said another Buddhist dayaka who joined us and was pleased to know I was a Buddhist from Lanka. The priests chamber was a quiet haven amidst the throng of people outside.  However, this was not the day for a discussion. We promised the young scholar priest that we would come for another visit to learn more about Buddhism in Bangladesh.  I wanted to get back to the roof top of my apartment building to see the supermoon… Oops! I’ve come a full circle on this blog, so till next midnight blogging — bye.

World Press Photo12 at Drik, Bangladesh

Photo Samuel Aranda, Spain for New York Times

Drik where I work is a happening place.  As one of my young colleagues said we breath, dream and live on photographs.  Famous photographers, curators, videographers, budding artists, poets, authors wander in and out of the ever open doors of Drik. In the past year or so I have seen exhibitions that have ranged from miniatures painted on grains of rice to major work by celebrated artists and photographers. This April 26th Drik Gallery doors will open for the World Press Photo 12 exhibition.  Do join us for this rare visual treat.

Drik in cooperation with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Dhaka, have pleasure in inviting you to the opening of the World Press Photo 12 exhibition at Drik Gallery, on Thursday, 26 April 2012, 5.30 pm.

Watch the inauguration ceremony live at

The exhibition honours the prizewinners of World Press Photo’s 55th Photo Contest.

The exhibition will be on at Drik Gallery till 18 May 2012, everyday from 3-8 pm.

 Drik Gallery

House 58, Road 15A (New)

Dhanmondi, Dhaka-1209, Bangladesh

Tel: 880-2-9120125, 8112954, 8123412



5:30        Welcome Address by Shahidul Alam, Managing Director, Drik

5:40        Address by H.M. Ambassador Alphons Hennekens, Kingdom of the Netherlands

5:50        Address by Femke van der Valk, Coordinator Exhibitions, World Press Photo

6:00        Address by Nurul Kabir, Editor, New Age, Guest of Honour

6:10        Vote of Thanks by Abir Abdullah, The Jury Member, World Press Photo 2011

About World Press Photo

World Press Photo is an independent, nonprofit organisation based in Amsterdam, committed to supporting and advancing high standards in photojournalism and documentary photography worldwide.

Each year, an independent international jury, consisting of nineteen members, judges the entries in nine different categories, submitted by photojournalists, agencies, newspapers and magazines from all corners of the world. This year’s competition attracted 5,247 photographers from 124 countries. In total 101,254 images were entered in the contest.

The annual exhibition is shown this year at about 100 venues all over the world. This year’s exhibition contains over 160 photographs. It is an annual public showcase for photojournalism comprising the year’s winning photo, together with award-winning images from each of the nine contest categories.

About Drik

Opening Ceremony of Chobi Mela VI International Festival of Photography, Dhaka Bangladesh. 21 January, 2011. Photo Saikat Mojumder

Drik, Bangladesh is a distinctive multimedia organisation that has made challenging social inequality its central driving force.  Established in 1989, Drik has successfully partnered with national and international organisations using the power of the visual medium to educate, inform and draw powerful emotional responses to influence public opinion. The Drik Picture Library, the Photography, Publications, Audio-Visual and Gallery departments work in synergy to carry out the work of the company.  It’s ability and influence is strengthened by its initiatives, the Pathshala South Asian Media Academy, DrikICT, Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography and the Majority World Photo Agency.

About Drik Gallery

Drik Gallery, Drik, Bangladesh. 2 March, 2011. Photo Mahbub Alam Khan

Drik Gallery holding David Burnett's 44 Days -Iran and the Remaking of the World Exhibition, January, 2011. Photo Mahbub Alam Khan

Drik Gallery was opened in August 1993 with the first showing of World Press Photo in Bangladesh, there is a story behind the scenes. Bangladesh was in the midst of a massive democratic movement in the late eighties. On the streets, through curfews and through tear gas, Drik was documenting events in their entirety. Throughout this period, the major galleries, either state owned or belonging to foreign embassies, were not prepared to exhibit Drik’s work, since it was ‘political’. Drik knew it had to build its own gallery. The first ever staging of World Press provided the perfect opportunity. Drik gathered our resources and built what is now, one of the finest galleries in South Asia and the largest private gallery in Bangladesh.

Many faces of war 1971

1971 is carved in my memory as a personal year of joy. The year I enjoyed being pregnant and feeling the thrill of a life growing inside me and then later in the year giving birth to my son.  For me 1971 brought significant and momentous changes to my life as a mother. For the Sri Lanka’s People’s Liberation Front, or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), 1971 was a painful birth of a short lived youth rebellion. For millions in Bangladesh 1971 was a painful long labour for the birth of their nation.

On April 5, 1971, we had attended a faculty party at the Colombo University campus and the talk had turned to growing political unrest among the youth.  Some were concerned but others dismissed the rumours as nonsense. Coming home, the streets of Colombo was quiet.  Two cops stopped us and had a brief chat with us asking where we were going but it was a friendly chat – nothing to get alarmed about.

The same evening my father after a visit to Colombo had taken the last train to Hikkaduwa.  From the railway station, he had walked behind a young group of students with sports bags, and he thought they were a school cricket team returning after a match in Colombo. About an hour or so afterwards when my father heard gunfire, he and my brother-in-law had come out on to the porch to find out what was happening. They thought it was either a continuation of a local village conflict or the police setting off some hand bombs they had recovered from the local thugs. Only when a bullet whizzed past their heads did they scramble in to the house, and gather the family under the dining table.  This was the start of the JVP’s  1971 uprising and the attack on the Hikkaduwa police station.

We woke up in Colombo to a 24 hour curfew and listened avidly to the radio for news. There was no TV and no newspapers that day. The words insurgent and insurgency entered our vocabulary. The government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike gained control of all but a few remote areas within about two weeks but an estimated 15,000 insurgents- -many of them in their teens—died in the conflict.

While we in our little island state bounced back to a normal life after the insurgency, across the seas in then East Pakistan one of the bloodiest wars of this century was erupting.  April 1971 was the commencement of a mass human displacement hitherto unseen when 10 million refugees fled to India from then East Pakistan, trudging through monsoonal rains.

It was 40 years later that I discovered the full horror of the genocide of 1971, the pain and suffering of the refugees while working at Drik.  Today I watched my colleagues Reza and Mahbub carefully getting images of this period ready for the forthcoming exhibition “Many faces of war 1971.” I look at the decapitated heads and bodies in canals, the girl who has died of cholera, the little boy leading a street march who was gunned down a little while after the photo was taken, and wonder at how these images speak to us even though their voices are silenced for ever.

Drik has made several attempts to piece together the scattered history of 1971 with an initial publication on Bangladesh’s 25th anniversary in Drik’s 1996 calendar, an exhibition in the first Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography in 2000, followed by the publication of the book and a film on refugees in 2011, titled The Birth Pangs of a Nation.

This year Drik has commenced “Archiving 1971” a programme to collect oral, textual and visual resources to establish a one stop repository of the historical 1971 year of liberation for Bangladesh.

An outcome of the Archiving 1971 program is a photography exhibition at Suhrawardi Uddan, Dhaka (in front of Shikha Chironton) on 26 March 2012  at 11:00 am.

The exhibition will remain open to the public till 31 March, 2012.  Please join us if you are in Dhaka.

Painting my imagination with William Radice

William Radice with Bengali original read with musical accompaniment by Sydur Rahman Lipon, Shormymala and Delwar Hossain Dilu. Photograph©British Council/Tanzim Ahmed Bijoy, 23 February, 2012.

I had not heard before of the brutal slaying of Meghnad in Lanka, nor of Michael Madhusudan Dutta.  A political killing of an unarmed man, scheming, treachery, all the ingredients that we are familiar with unfolded – albeit with a difference.  No, not on TV but on a stage – the powerful emotional rendering in English , the sound of drums, and soft Bengali music — a picture kept painting itself on the canvas of my imagination. Gods fought battles, killed each other, not under international conventions and my sadness was not for the epic heroes but at my own ignorance.  Where was I? At the bilingual, dramatized reading of Book VI of Meghnadbadh kabya  by Michael Madhusudan Dutta translated by William Radice at the British Council in Dhaka. The expressive rendering in English by Radice was interspersed with extracts from the Bengali original, read with musical accompaniment by Sydur Rahman Lipon, Shormymala and Delwar Hossain Dilu.

The epic Kabya (Kavya for us in Lanka) was what is termed Madhusudan’s subversive interpretation of the Ramayana story, with Meghnad, son of Ravana portrayed as a tragic hero.  Here Meghnad (a.k.a as Indrajit) is shown to be a patriot, a loving husband, a caring son and a friend to his countrymen. Unlike the original verse by Valmiki.  Here Ravana is also portrayed as a respectable man and a responsible king full of all royal qualities. According to some theories, Ravana was a historical emperor who reigned over Lanka from 2554 BC to 2517 BC. The negative depiction of Ravana in Ramayana has been open to other interpretaions like Dutta’s.  Ravana as myths and legends go was a scholar and possessed the nectar of immortality stored under his navel thanks to a celestial boon by Brahma.

Rama and Lakshmana Bound by Indrajit's Serpent Arrows. Reproduced from Wikimedia commons. Artist unknown.

Ravana’s son by his wife Mandodari was named “Meghnad (Meghanada)” because his birth cry sounded like thunder. In the battles that Gods often indulged in Meghnad had defeated Indra, the king of the Devas, after which he came to be known as ‘Indrajit’ (“the conqueror of Indra”)

Lakshmana fights Indrajith. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.

I had long been an admirer of William Radice, the translator of many of my favourite Tagore poems like  Unending love. Radice is a linguist, writer, and a poet, who by his expert translations have given many of us who cannot read Bangla, the pleasure of enjoying great literary works.

Tagore and his works are/ were familiar in Lanka. My father referred to Bangladesh as Tagore country and wanted a complete works of Tagore when I first visited Dhaka in 2001.

The bilingual performance was 
a new version of a presentation for me. Devised and directed by Mukul Ahmed, a London based theatre director, even me with my “ektu, ektu Bangla”   I was moved by the emotional renderings.  Listening later to Radice conversing in Bangla I made a mental note to speed up my Bangla learning.

In a brief conversation with Radice after the performance, his eyes lit up when I said I was from Lanka and my second name was Lakshmi.  Dutta, he said was very fond of Lanka. If I understood properly, in the recitation, Lakshmi comes up as a guardian god of Lanka.  Maybe the early Lakshmi coins of Lanka is a reference to this?

Ignorance is not bliss. I was saddened that our education in Sri Lanka had not even briefly touched or introduced us to the great classics of our South Asian neigbhour.

The Year of Laxmi and Drik

For weeks this blog of mine, which has a mind of its own had been nagging me to write a piece and take stock of 2011.  The question is how do you crunch a year full of events, a stock of photo memories  into a single blog but let’s try. …

Boys will be boys. A son of a doctor plays with his domestic on the rooftop adjacent to my apartment block as a monsoon storm clouds gather. Lalmatia, Dhaka, Bangladesh. June 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

To be exact, the story of course commenced a tad before the start of 2011, when I turned away from a comfortable life and settled myself in Dhaka to work for Drik and for what I called my “rickshaw” life. I had termed 2011, as embracing the unusual, the innovative – even the disruptive.

A labourer on May Day. Dhaka, 1 May 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

2011 will be remembered by me and notched as the year of Laxmi – not only because I had the good fortune to see the advent of a granddaughter named Laxmi Elin but because its been a year full of riches – no, not the monetary kind of wealth and prosperity that Goddess Laxmi is supposed to endow one with – but the more precious riches of family reunions, seeing Tara grow up,  strengthened friendships – both the old ones as well as the freshness of new friendships that working for Drik has brought me.

My friend and colleague Adnan Wahid dancing at the opening rally of the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography , Dhaka, Bangladesh, January 2011. Photograph©K M Asad

So at the end of this year it’s cheers to Ranil and Aileen for the gift of Laxmi Elin and the thoughtful way of naming her bringing both maternal and paternal grandma’s into the picture.

It is also cheers to Shahidul and my new found friends at Drik and Pathshala for making this year an eventful one. They’ve tolerated my incessant cry of “Chole jabbo Sri Lanka” (am going back to Sri Lanka), nursed me though the drama of losing my brand new laptop, got me the much needed work visa and made room for me introducing me to their rich world of photography.

There was no better way to start the year than to dunk myself into the world of images.  There was plenty — more than 400 at the Chobi Mela international festival of photography VI (CM VI) organized by Drik –  29 print exhibitions, 31 digital presentations, evening dialogues and discussions and artists from 30 countries.

From the Chobi Mela Exhibition "My City of Unheard Prayers" by another new friend Sayed Asif Mahmud ( Bangladesh).

I had been working from September 2010 with  Reza and Mosafa at the Chobi Mela Secretariat. As the festival day approached it was all hands on deck, and many joined creating and contributing to an amazing spectacular unbelievable gala event that lasted for two weeks. I marveled silently how this comparatively small org could pull off such an international event. See video by Jeremiah Foo.

‘The success of this festival is because of you. The practitioners who have walked the walk, and the audience who have nurtured and supported this crazy dream. It is a dream we will dream together, and triumph we shall” Shahidul Alam. Photograph©D M Shibly

For me 2011 was a year of learning – no, not that much about photography but about myself and coping with the disruptive.  Often I was intimidated to take my camera out amid the abundant wealth of talent. Few instances I did it was mostly street photography.

In Dhaka much happens on the streets. I had thought the rally at Chobi Mela was unique but I soon learned that Bangladeshis didn’t need much persuasion to air their problems on the streets. Hartals still happen here frequently and bring the country to a virtual halt. May day outing was one, where people poured out on to the streets all dressed in red – producing armbands and headbands must be a lucrative business.

May day activists -- the young and the old have time to stop and smile for me. Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 1, 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Life and energy naturally overflow onto the streets in a city that is bursting at the seams.  The traffic is notorious.

A girl tries to sell roses to me while I sit caged inside a three wheeler (CNG) in clogged traffic. Dhaka Bangladesh, 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Amid the incessant horning, the rickshaw wallas swear and argue as they weave in an out, narrowly missing a car, a bus and even the baton weaving traffic police.  I’ve long since learned to balance myself on the ridiculously narrow sloping seat, stopped praying and trust I’ll reach my destination limbs intact. The guard at the apartment block shows off his few English phrases and it is no matter for him that the rickshaw walla will not understand English, he happily hailed a rickshaw for me this morning calling out “Come, come quickly.” Many a morning I have a familiar rickshaw walla waiting outside my apartment building.  He too ignores my Bangla and greets me with a quirky smile and says “Good Morning” in English.

The tea kiosks and the surrounding pavements are the common man’s smoking club.  Office workers regularly gather outside for “char kabo,” a gossip and a moan with the popular smoke.  Streets are the home for many, the poor children’s playground, their work place where they try to eke a living. On my way to classes at Pathshala one morning in April it was fun to see the streets kids, playful without a care in the world, strip naked, climb a tree and jump into the green murky waters of a Dhaka lake making it their own swimming pool.

Morning swim in a Dhaka lake. Bangladesh. April 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

In a year full of happenings at Drik, I had met several charming, very talented photographers.  The most recent meeting with David Burnett the iconic photographer in Dhaka is still the defining event of 2011.

Drik Gallery II held David Burnett’s exhibition “44 Days – Iran and the Remaking of the World" at Chobi Mela VI. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

I had seen this exhibition and also read and heard before about his work, but to listen to David himself was a totally different experience.  Dressed in a faded blue T-shirt, early in December this year, he held the audience spell bounded bringing the events around images come alive – from his photos in Vietnam, to what he thought was a botched up photo of president John F. Kennedy taken as a young rookie photographer. We travelled with him to Iran to catch Ayatollah Khoumeni drinking tea; to other Presidents in jet planes during election campaigns and heard how he captured the anguish on the face of Mary Decker at the 1984 L.A. Olympics and to describe many more defining moment images. He had spoken about his work photographing the refugees as they streamed into India during the 1971 war at the launching of the book and video of the “Birth pangs of a nation.” As a result of seeing so many children sick and dying among the refugees, David said he himself became a more sensitive father, in a way that his wife and daughter couldn’t understand.

But the best memories I have is how comfortable and at ease he was among the people on the streets celebrating Bangladesh’s national day on the 16 Dec.  “ Can I say Jai Bangla now?” he asked seated on a wall smoking a cigar with Bangladeshis .

David Burnett has a smoke in Dhaka. Bangladesh 16 December, 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Out on the streets people recognized him as the VIP and wanted to be photographed with him or photograph him. Often it was even difficult to get close enough to focus.  I clicked away as I saw him borrowing a lighter from an astounded rickshaw walla.  He not only lit his long cigar but also quite naturally leaned forward and lit the cigarette of the rickshaw walla quite oblivious to the amusement of the others watching him.

David Burnett lights a cigarette for a rickshaw driver. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 16 Dec. 2011. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

So what will 2012 bring – will I still be riding rickshaws? Sit in the same office and dream of my avocado tree and squirrels in the garden? Still wrestle with the same problems?  Be up against the same challenges?  Hard to say but I’ll certainly be wishing for Goddess Laxmi to be around with all her special charms and superior spiritual feminine energy.   And I need to see the baby Laxmi that has entered our family.

Happy New Year — Live your dream, love what you do.