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.

Dhaka Diary: In search of one percent inspiration

Boys will be boys and find trees to climb even in the middle of the Dhaka city. Walking under the tree I only looked up and saw them when I heard their shouts. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Genius, they say, is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration. The 99 per cent, one can easily supply. For most of us it’s our stock in trade. The one per cent is the bit that’s somewhat more elusive or difficult to come up with.   More so, if you’ve been working to build that pension fund and you’ve let your brain get oxidized with strategic planning, writing press releases, speeches for the boss etc, etc.  The bright shiny eyes which you saw the world as a child invariably gets dull with age.

I am a person who hated school.  My aunt’s three sewing girls in Panadura, Sri Lanka,  drew sticks in the morning to decide who would take me to school – nay practically carry me to school –a biting, crying animal to school. 

But in later adult life I’ve trudged back to school, still hating the four walled environment but loving the learning.  In Dhaka, learning the basics of photography at the Pathshala Media Academy is like taking a polishing cloth and abrasives to clean the oxidized brain. The one percent I may never find but so far the polishing has been fun.

Seeing the world with bright eyes. Two street boys munching fruits on a tree in ther middle of the city. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Pathshala is a Sanskrit word meaning  “place of learning,” and the Media Academy is modeled on how ancient teaching took place under spreading banyan trees where gurus with long flowing beards imparted wisdom and experiences in an open environment of learning.  Today, there are beards but not the gurus with flowing white beards.  Being a photography course outdoor classes are mandatory, but for our short course this was the first one.   Interestingly, the course coordinator and guru for the day Shah Sazzad was in a workshop I ran on caption writing at the Chobi Mela IV in 2006.  Today, tables are turned and am the pupil and he the guru.

Out near a small polluted lake our first assignment was to photograph a subject against a strong backlight but to try to catch the images in the water. Someone found a street waif Azad but he was a natural.

A little tired of the posing he ran and got himself an ice cream with the first baksheesh he got. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Portrait of Azad. Dhaka Bangladesh. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

Azad posing for the photographers, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph©Chulie de Silva














 By this time the photography students were attracting many who were more than willing people to pose  for photographs. But Azad had the biggest following. 


A boy and his monkey Prince. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

 By this time the photography students were attracting many who were more than willing people to pose  for photographs. But Azad had the biggest following. 

The next assignment was to take portrait shots but the question was how to convince anyone to pose for a photograph with only a smattering of Bangla.  But as it turned out the couple of words and the body language did work.  Renu at first refused , but then she was soon enjoying being in front of the lens.

Portrait of Renu. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Out on the streets a promotion for a new TV station was taking shape.  There were horse-drawn carriages and a musical show with a live band.

Feeding time before the parade. Photograph©Chulie de Silva


Taslima and Yasmin have front row standing space. Photograph©Chulie de Silva

But as I photographed the young mother and baby enjoying the show with front row standing seats, an official stepped up to ask her  to move thinking I didn’t want them in the photo.  I was shooing the officer away trying to tell him that I didn’t want them to move, and that I wanted them in the picture, when they turned to look at me and I got an unexpected shot of Taslima and daughter Yasmin.

Taslima and daughter Yasmin. Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photograph©Chulie de Silva