Published on 10 April, 2015 in Mint
An exhibition of 50 photographs of Kolkata’s ‘Kabuliwalas’
Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala (1892), about a man from Afghanistan who comes to Kolkata to make money, struck a chord with readers. Taking inspiration from Tagore’s story, two journalists-cum-photographers, Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz, set out in search of the forgotten community of Kabuliwalas in the city in 2012. Over three years, the duo used photography to document the circumstances and social transformation of nearly 5,000 Afghan families whose ancestors are believed to have arrived in Kolkata after the Anglo-Afghan wars that started in 1839. Scores of Afghans travelled from the southern provinces of Paktia and Paktika in Afghanistan to Kolkata, which was then the capital of British India and a centre for trade.
Tagore’s sketch of the Kabuliwala in his story hints at inspiration from one of the Afghans who arrived on business, but ended up staying back after Partition, which sealed borders and restricted travel to a foreign country without valid documents.
In their exhibition, From Kabul To Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories And Identity, Najib and Afroz are showcasing 50 photographs. The exhibition was held in Kabul from 18 March-1 April. After showing in New Delhi from 10-23 April, it will travel to Dhaka, Bangladesh (24 April-6 May) and Kolkata (16-29 May).
Najib was born in Kabul. She moved to India with her family when she was 8. “Growing up in India, Tagore’s story has been a point of reference and cross-connection in many conversations about Afghans and the historical ties between the two countries. As fiction, the poignant tale of the tall and hefty dry-fruit seller leaving behind his little daughter is a romanticized version of the countless experiences of Afghan immigrants who have travelled to or through India in search of a new home. So, in 2012, when I was keen to work on a project related to Afghanistan, I saw an opportunity to draw inspiration from this fictitious story about a community, but document it as it existed in real life and at a different period in history,” she says.
Born in Bardhaman, West Bengal, Afroz was familiar with Tagore’s story, and when Najib approached him for the project, he agreed.
He was fascinated to see how rooted the families were in Afghan culture. “Some of them are children of the early settlers and have never visited Afghanistan…. When we entered their homes, we felt we’d entered a home in Afghanistan—the carpeted floor, cushions along the wall, their habit of drinking green tea, eating meals from the same platter, the absence of women in public—these are all Afghan customs,” he says.
From Kabul To Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories And Identity will be on display from 10-23 April (Sundays closed), 10am-6pm, at Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi (23471100). It will be on display from 16-29 May, 11am-7pm, at the Harrington Street Arts Centre, Bow Barracks, Kolkata.