Ritigala, where Gods are smiling

The excited voice on the phone said “Chulie I am in Sri Lanka, are you here?” Sadly I wasn’t – I was stuck in a hospital in Dhaka with pneumonia. The caller was Nirvair Singh Rai, a young Indian friend I met while working at Drik. Today, we caught up on GChat.  “I am in love with your homeland, and the people. Everything about it! and Ritigala always calls me back.” He pays tribute to Ritigala in his blog and says:

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Life is but another threshold for a monk, waiting to be crossed over. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Deep within the heart of Sri Lanka, a monk treads softly on a path that has been walked on since as long ago as 1st Century BCE. Monarchs, kings and rulers have come and gone, but this humble monastery situated in Ritigala, the highest peak in northern Sri Lanka, still stands in all its austerity and simplicity.”

“The monastery does not feature any of the traditional symbols of Buddhist temples, it does not have bodhi trees or stupas. All it has to offer is the honesty of its scarlet robed monks, and the kindness of their hands—some, as weathered and wrinkled as the terrain itself, and some, as young and as unlined as green saplings.”

Kindness lies in the gentleness of hands, and wisdom, in the quietness of a gaze. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

Kindness lies in the gentleness of hands, and wisdom, in the quietness of a gaze. Photo©Nirvair Singh Rai

  “Somewhere  along the way, we have forgotten how to navigate the ardous terrain of life. But in this hidden land, the map to the pathways of the heart and the mind, as well as the nimble grace needed to walk them, still lives on. This series is my attempt to share some of Ritigala’s purity and wisdom. It is merely my effort to make you feel what I felt—bliss…”

 Read and see more on his post: The Gods are Smiling

Nirvair copy

Nirvair hails from Bathinda, Punjab, India and is currently studying photography at Pathshala, the South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ritigala the ancient Buddhist monastery and mountain in Sri Lanka is located 43 km away from the UNESCO World Heritage city of Anuradhapura.

Note: All story text of “Gods are Smiling” and photographs copyright Nirvair Singh Rai. For publication of full story with high res images please contact: nirvairrai@gmail.com

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


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.


Positive & Strong Princey Mangalika on HIV/AIDS

Princey Mangalika. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik

Princey Mangalika. Photograph©Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

 “I can tell a married woman living isolated at home that she can get infected with HIV/AIDS,” was Princey Mangalika’s clear message at the mobile and gallery “Portraits of Commitment” exhibition held in Sri Lanka August 2007.

A stay at home wife who had never held a job Princey had no idea what AIDS was.  Her  husband a hotel worker had gone  abroad to work for a German man in 1994.  It was only after his return in 2000 that he fell seriously sick and a hospital test revealed he had AIDS. Ostracized and hounded by the villagers Princey found him after a three day search in a temple in Colombo crying hysterically. His mouth was burned from the poison  he had taken and although doctors had fought to save his life he had died that day of poisoning.

When Princey’s house was set on fire by neighbours she took her two children and sought refugee with her parents.   For her, the nightmare was not yet over.  When finally she had her own HIV test, it showed she was positive. 

She is now the President of the the Lanka Plus NGO formed to help HIV-positive people  with the assistance and support of Dr.  Kamalika Abeyratne who herself was infected with HIV virus from a blood transfusion.

  When I finally came face to face with this remarkable lady she was more petite than in her portrait. Dressed in a white Kandyan saree  and sporting the red aids ribbon badge,  she had arrived after the opening ceremony of the exhibition.   

It was a pleasure to talk to this confident, effervescent lady.  Some of her thoughts and views are captured in this interview I did for the  short film produced on the Mobile and Gallery exhibitions by Pathshala Institute of Photography, Bangladesh.

Q:Princey,  tell me how you feel  to  see your portrait among all the others here?  

Princey:  If you look at all the photos here, most are living with HIV.  There are no differences in the photos, all are alike, and I am amazed as to why society is so fearful about this [AIDS]  

Q: In your opinion what message can this exhibition convey? 

Princey: I feel that if the younger generation takes a closer look at these photos with a good awareness they will be terrified as this is not a disease that is visible externally.  This I hope will make them conscious and wary of the dangers of unsafe sexual behaviour. 

Q:  How can we use exhibitions like this to really reach the young and convey the message? 

Princey: If the message is passed on to the young generation by people like me it becomes much more significant because the society does not understand or know much about what HIV or AIDS is. They have only heard of AIDS and think AIDS patients are disfigured and ugly.  So if programs are made using people like me living with HIV to convey messages they will be more successful.  Maybe then it might become easy to find a solution to this problem.  

Q:  You are now willing to come out in the open and take this messageBut the early days wouldn’t have been easy for you.  Can you tell me how it was then? 

Princey: When attention focused on my husband, he did not have any privacy or confidential rights.  There was a breach of confidentiality by the minor employees of the hospital when we went to seek health care.  Quite unnecessarily we had to face attacks and innumerable difficulties.  This was hard and I suffered enough overcoming these hurdles.  I have had to face every difficulty that life has to offer.  So there is nothing new that can happen to me now. I have overcome these barriers and come a long way in life with patience and will power.  I am happy about this.  In future if there is anything I can do, I hope to do it well. 

Q: How will you carry on with your work

 Princey:We have to give correct information to society about HIV and AIDS—what is HIV, what is AIDS, how it is transmitted and how it is not transmitted. Undoubtedly this message needs to go the younger generation.  Till they marry youth needs to be cautious about their sexual behaviour or delay sex till marriage. Pre- marital relationships, sudden or casual relationships shouldn’t lead to sex.  My advice to husbands and wives is to live life trusting each other totally – it is not enough one partner being the trusting one – the trust must be mutual. 

W.S. Prasanna, the Tuk-tuk driver, explains to commuters how a stay at home wife can get  HIV/AIDS  at the Pettah bus stand, Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph © Chulie de Silva

W.S. Prasanna, the Tuk-tuk driver, explains to commuters how a stay at home wife can get HIV/AIDS. Pettah bus stand, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Photograph © Chulie de Silva

A novel way to spread the HIV/AIDS Message 

The mobile and gallery exhibitions featured large, sensitive portraits of South Asians who have made a commitment to change the course of HIV/AIDS by the renowned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam and insightful interviews by Karen Emmons illustrating the diverse forms of compassion and roles that leadership can take in confronting AIDS. 

The photographs highlighted the realities and emphasized the positive directions people are moving in order to rise above difficult situations. Each story centered on a different aspect of the disease, a different reason for committing to help others .

The “Portraits of Commitment” exhibitions were made possible through the World Bank’s Small Grants Youth Initiative program organised by the World Bank Sri Lanka office  in partnership with the exhibition producers Pathshala, the South Asian Institute of Photography, and the Asia Pacific Leadership Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development of UNAIDS. The  book by the same name was commissioned by UNAIDS.