After a 15hr bus ride and an exceptionally good Indian Coffee House dosa we finally arrived at Sambhavna, a week ago today, and it’s been a hive of activity ever since. It was a Sunday when we got here, and few people were about, so we followed a tip-off from Colin (of BMA) and headed straight to the Jehan Numa Palace hotel where we were to find further images of the Begum’s (or Queens), the former rulers of Bhopal. The hotel was actually founded by the decedents of the Begums. Interestingly enough we were given a tour of the hotel, family photo by family photo. For five generations the rulers of Bhopal were all female, until the final Begum, Saltan Jehan, abdicated to let her son take over as the next male ruler (Nawab – also the colony name where I will be setting up the studio).
Monday was the first visit to the Nawab community clinic that is to be my studio for the next 3weeks. Although a decent enough size, there was a partition wall dividing the space in two that was evidently a lot more solid than we’d remembered. As well as this, one half of the partitioned space was full of junk. It wasn’t the end of the world, but the partition was certainly going to compromise things. I couldn’t believe it when the community health workers that use this space said I could just err… knock it down! A few minutes later we’d had a quote from the metal-worker, and as long as we had the permission from higher up, the wall was coming down!!! Joy.
We then had a massive list of other things to do, prep-wise. Back-drop, chairs and carpet being the main things. Bhopal’s a fairly big city so knowing where to source this stuff would have been impossible without Devendra, one of Sambhavna’s long-term volunteers. Plus we still needed a translator, and we also wanted to go and visit a photographer who had further insight into traditional portraiture in the region. After an amazing visit to Anusha (India Memory Project) we knew that different regions in India had different customs, so we wanted to see someone local too. Fortunately she put me in touch with Bhopale who later led us in the right direction.
By now, in my frazzled memory log, it must be at least Tuesday or Wednesday. We’ve met Sanjay (who we had actually met the previous year) and he’s now another wealth of local information, and translator for the project.
Studio-wise, I wanted to create something notably Bhopali but without one of those painted backdrops of the city. After bombarding Vanita, a very kind lady at the Museum of Mankind, with lots of questions about traditional craftwork typical of Madhya Pradesh, she put us in touch with a friend of a friend of a friend that new a great family of Zardosi needleworkers (if that’s the technical term) that live down a slope with some shops on it, opposite a hotel, that with a little time we eventually found. And soon we will have a traditional Zardosi signature for the traditional studio. Zardosi is traditional needlework and embroidery typically Muslim in origin, which suits the Nawab studio as the inhabitants are also predominantly Muslim. Needless to say, the family is amazing and we’ve seen the work so far and it looks perfect.
On our second visit to the family home we learned that the grandfather was a canteen worker at Union Carbide. Fortunately he finished his shift by 7pm so was home by the time the tank exploded. When you hear stories like this, Bhopal suddenly feels a lot smaller.
With Sanjay we have been to the colony three times already to meet with the people, to explain about Bhopal: Facing 30, and to invite them for a portrait. It was interesting to learn about the timings that were going to suit most people. Early mornings, Fridays (it’s Prayer day) and Sundays were perhaps best in order to have the whole family come for a portrait together. Almost all members of the family work, or are at school, and so getting them all at once will mean some erratic studio hours. On our third visit to the colonies we were hosted by Iqbal Khan, a prominent figure in the community who was among those who walked for 37days from Bhopal to Delhi, and fasted for a further 21days, demanding justice from the Government. It was on the 22nd day that they were joined by the Prime Minister who promised clean uncontaminated drinking water. It was a further three years before they received it. And what they do receive runs for only one hour a day.
Each time that we’ve been in the colony and visited the studio space there had been a faithful optimism of the inch by inch progression for the transformation of the studio space. I can’t say I wasn’t nervous that the metal worker, and the wood wallah who removed panels, didn’t arrive until Friday. On that morning it was carnage. By Saturday miracles had happened.
On that day I felt very privileged to meet Mr Kamlesh Jaimini, from Jaimini Studio. We were led to him from multiple directions. Inspired by Anusha, and coincidentally by Ed Hanley from the band Autorickshaw, whom I’d met with briefly and who had also met Mr Jaimini. And by Bhopale who was tweeting with Ed when he said I should go. We learned that the studio was founded in the 1950s by his father, and with patience Kamlesh spent the afternoon showing us his own formal family portraits so that we had a good understanding of customs and traditions. It turns out Mr Jaimini had been the official photographer for Union Carbide, and had also documented the aftermath in 1984. He let us look through these images, and shared his experiences. Despite the horrors we saw and heard, it was a very pleasant afternoon.
One thing I’ve not mentioned much is the studio set up. Bhopal is very spread out, across two large lakes, and we’ve been on a rat race to get all of the materials from all different places to dress the studio. This bit’s all self funded so I’m on a budget too, and it hasn’t been as easy as I’d hoped to get everything sorted. Or to know how everything will look once set up or with people in the shot. I’d say this has been the biggest struggle thus far. And today is Sunday, which means tomorrow the Nawab studio must be ready for action….
Just one hitch though. The carpet has only just arrived at Sambhavna by cover of darkness. And without any ceiling lights in the studio, we are now destined for a very early start!