Muzaffarnagar, in The Wire

Mohd. Jabbar, with family. At residence in relocation colony. Muzaffarnagar, March 2014.

Mohd. Jabbar, with family. At residence in relocation colony. Muzaffarnagar, March 2014 © Asif Khan

It’s been three years since violence broke out in Muzaffarnagar.

TheWire.in has carried a feature with some images which I shot during my visits in the aftermath. A short note accompanies the images where I briefly share my experience of traveling to the place.

Please click here for the piece.

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Umrah, in Roads & Kingdoms

Pilgrims performing Tawaf. Masjid Al-Haram, Makkah. March 2016

Pilgrims performing Tawaf. Masjid Al-Haram, Makkah. March 2016 © Asif Khan

Time for Haj.

Late to post this here, but couldn’t be a better time than to remember it now. I had contributed a piece to Roads & Kingdoms about the Umrah trip which I had made earlier this year.

You can access it here.

 

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urbanXchanger – Alfred Herrhausen Gessellschaft

urbanXchanger is based on the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award which was given annually since 2007 to innovative projects in various cities around the world.

As one of the studios identified to be part of the project in India, Anagram Architects approached me to help document their urban intervention for addressing the challenges being faced by Sangam Vihar in New Delhi.

Sangam Vihar, located on the southern edge of Delhi, is Asia’s largest agglomeration of unauthorised colonies. Over one million people live cramped in the 5 square kilometers area that it covers. The 30 colonies that comprise Sangam Vihar are demarcated as blocks which grew up on agricultural land belonging to the surrounding villages. Since its inception in 1979 the settlement has been steadily densifying as it absorbs migrants from all across India, in the face of a massive shortage of affordable public housing in the city.

Unlike conventional commissions by design studios, this was interestingly different. My job was to document a day of activity, which was a culmination (of sorts) of the studio’s efforts of engaging with the local community and other partners.

The ubiquitous digital Google Maps™ marker that floats over its virtual maps was turned into a physical balloon hovering over the green edge of Sangam Vihar. Particularly amongst the younger generation who hold the future of the development in their hands, this marker is extremely recognisable. A series of balloons was used to identify sites and events along the edge that were deemed critical to its recoding. These small interventions constitute one face of the Schizo-Plan that seeks to establish the green edge as Sangam Vihar`s new front.

For more information, please visit the Alfred Herrhausen Gesellschaft website.

 

 

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OneLunarMonth2016

Maghrib during Ramadan. Jama Masjid, Delhi. July 2013. © Asif Khan

Maghrib during Ramadan. Jama Masjid, Delhi. July 2013. © Asif Khan

It has taken six attempts to find success. Ramadan is over, and so are the three days of Eid. For the first time since I’ve been blogging during Ramadan have I been able to post throughout the month. I didn’t have to stop at 29 posts either; the moon made sure that I was able to post 30 stories.

Finding 30 subjects willing to sit for portraits was difficult enough. Finding 30 subjects who had a Ramadan experience worth narrating added to the effort.

When the month began, the plan was to spend a week, maybe 10 days, shooting. By the end of which I hoped to have stories which I could then keep posting at leisure for the rest of the month. Such wishful thinking. But then I can’t be blamed if I wanted to have a comfortable time during Ramadan.

As it turned out, I was looking for the 30th subject on the last day of the month. At a time, when most men are scurrying around to buy a white kurta and topi for Eid namaz, I was hunting for someone to tell me a story.

What I had learned by then was that finding people willing to be featured wasn’t difficult. It was the part about getting them to dig into their memories and come out with their most cherished memories that took all the time. The first response almost always was — “Well there’s nothing special about Ramadan. It’s just praying and fasting, Sehri and Iftar and Taraweeh and Quran.”

For some time now, I have been thinking about the lack of storytelling around Ramadan and Eid. For a time that’s considered the most precious every year, it’s surprising that there aren’t enough narratives which have been documented. Fiction has failed here too — I can only think of Premchand’s “Eidgah” (of course, there must be others, there have to be others; we need more of them, and compiled together).

Most accounts focus on the more visible aspects, restricting themselves to food and walking around Muslim neighbourhoods. Photographs cling on these tropes, not trying to go beyond — daadhi and topi, hijab and burqa, namaz and sajda, and food food and more food. None of which manages to even scratch the surface of all that comprises the Ramadan experience.

Things have started changing. More experiences are being documented and shared now. Significantly, most of them are coming out of the West. Part of which makes me feel that these voices are increasingly finding an outlet because of the growing onslaught of Islamophobia their communities face.

The situation isn’t very different in our part of the world either. This makes it equally important for us to have experiences relating to our faith become a part of public conversation. To remove doubt and fear, to overcome stereotypes, to come across as a fellow human with similar aspirations and failures.

The victory would be when there is someone else with a name like Premchand writes another “Eidgah”. It is this hope, naive as it may be, that makes me continue my work.

This year’s One Lunar Month series can be seen on my website (please click here). It was done in collaboration with Two Circles, who also cross-posted it as a special Ramadan series (please click here). 

 

 

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Ramadan Mubarak

Like past years, I’ve begun blogging this Ramadan. With a couple of changes:

  • Instead of posting on One Lunar Month, I will be updating on my primary website. Managing multiple websites was getting to be a pain, and I feel this should make it simpler both for me and you. You can access the updates under the Projects sections on the website, or by simply clicking here.
  • This year, I’m working in collaboration with Two Circles. As part of the project this year, I will be posting stories from a few cities across U.P. — Kanpur, Aligarh, Allahabad, and possibly, Lucknow. These will be posted on Two Circles as a Ramadan series too (this is their dedicated webpage).

May Allah grant us with the ability to make the most of this month.

 

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Not how to begin

xx.12.15

xx.12.15

Yesterday was Tomorrow. Today could have been mine.

These fingers used to be stubby. Growing longer spindle-like, they wait for webs to be spun around them. The threads snap. It’s their habit of sagging and dropping down under their lazy weight. What couldn’t pinch once, is now ready to poke. With precision, it pierces between the ribs, stopping only for the gaps between the labour of breath.

Purple. The tip when it’s pulled out. Like the night sky, not orange in the afterglow of a sunset. But the colour it acquires of the city: of the dust of dream, the shard of failure, the haze of ignominy. Aggregating them into that regal hue, belying the truth which makes the agency of time.

It won’t be long before the dew trickles as icicles from these fingers. Dawn will render them statuesque. There will be the chill to greet. Incoming in waves of mist, flowing against the spikes in inaudible chimes.

Here should the sun be. Right now. With the promise of life. Whether as reincarnation or resuscitation. To bring the fingers back to their pudgy comfort.

The familiar isn’t comfort. I’ll have to try tomorrow, again.

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Zaalim, abhi Khanjar na chala

Muharram, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar, is shrouded in dichotomy. Despite being the first month of the year, it isn’t accompanied by celebration. Instead, it marks a period of remembrance for Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was martyred along with his followers at the Battle of Karbala on the 10th day of Muharram (known as Ashura) in 680 AD by the army of Yazid, the second Khalifa of the Umayyad dynasty. A group of 72 companions of Hussain, trapped on all sides and denied water for the last few days, were massacred that day by an army of thousands for refusing allegiance to an unjust power. 

The period of events leading up to the Battle of Karbala was of intense political strife, and became the impetus for division of the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia. Resulting in one of the longest lasting feuds on religious lines, it continues to manifest as one of the bloodiest conflicts in the present age. 

India has largely been free from Shia-Sunni violence in recent years: incidents have been sporadic, and mostly a thing of the past. Though the atmosphere can get tense during processions in some regions, and it can also take on the colour of Hindu-Muslim conflict; yet, the period has remained free of any major incidents.

Unlike Shias, who mourn throughout this period and whose grief exhibits itself to the public through processions (maatam, seena-zani, tatbir), most Sunnis observe solemnity in memory of the tragedy. There is however, a sizeable Sunni population which observes Muharram in a manner similar to the Shia, and there is a shared culture of juloos, taziya, alam and majlis. In some places, Sunni Muslims even have their own Karbala—a cemetery, which also has a shrine in the tradition of a replica of Hussain’s tomb—like their Shia brethren.

This series of images is an attempt to understand how Muharram is observed in North India through spending the first ten days of the month with a Shia family in particular, and in a Shia neighbourhood in general. As a Sunni Muslim, and with some of my closest friends being Shia Muslims, it was somewhat embarrassing to not have a reasonable comprehension of what constitutes the most important part of their identity and faith. It was with this objective that I approached the subject, and as was wont to be, what emerged was more than what had simply met the eye till now. 

The title has been taken from a popular elegy recited during this period, and is roughly translated into: O tyrant, don’t strike with your sword yet.

It is a period of mourning, through which an entire community comes together, making this the biggest social occasion on their calendars. Families, dispersed wherever they may be around the world, move back to their ancestral homes, even if those have been reduced to dilapidated structures—even ruins, to mourn together. Visiting neighbouring villages at the invitation of a friend or extended family member is the norm, and after congregating at the majlis, they share a simple meal served with exceptional hospitality by the host.

Between the wails of lament for those martyred, the collective cries of “Ya Hussain Ya Ali” and the beating of chests, the potency of grief in bringing people together gets reinforced, but isn’t all there is. Beyond grief and faith, that strength lies somewhere between the sharing of a meal with an extended family within the confines of an ancestral home, the unending discussions under the neem tree about the affairs of this world and how they affect lives on a local level, and sometimes even that simple sneaking around the corner for stealing a quick smoke while escaping the glance of elders. 

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Chennai Bells

Beginning around the end of last month, we were on the road for three weeks. Which is good considering our shared love for travel, and that it allows both of us with the time and opportunity to be together. Traveling together comes with a lot of learning, true. Like how we are getting older every time we looked at each other after the first week and said, “Can’t live out of a suitcase now.”

Chennai was the first stop, and a short one. Only a couple of days to attend the wedding of one of S’s friends. The ceremony was held at a beautiful church with a 200 yrs old history. While S played her part as bridesmaid, I doubled up as groomsman and wedding photographer. There was some initial apprehension when I heard about my double duties (“How would I shoot inside the church, if I’m supposed to walk down the aisle?”). Worrying wasn’t necessary, because I was told that the church didn’t allow pictures during the ceremony. Much like how it happens inside mosques during Nikah.

Indian weddings scream colour. For a change, this is a full B&W set, hoping that folks don’t miss and see more than just the colour.

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