Photographer Raghu Rai was five when the Partition happened in 1947. He watched as violence broke out in his village, Jhang, tucked 100 km away from Lahore, Pakistan. Many houses were burnt, and his three-storey house, the last one at the end of the lane, served as a shelter for many neighbours. His family migrated to India and lived in a refugee camp in Jalandhar.
In January this year, he began photographing refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Somalia in different parts of the country. Perhaps, this reminded him of what it meant to bea refugee. These photographs are now part of his latest exhibition “The Longing To Belong: Refugees In India”. With over 50 colour photographs, the show at the Art Gallery in India International Centre, in collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), was inaugurated on the occasion of World Refugee Day on June 20. Rai says, “Every refugee longs to belong and wants to go home. Childhood impressions of their homeland stay on in their minds forever. They carry with them their own experiences, in the clothes they wear and the food they eat.”
While a photograph shows a class of Tibetan children in yolk-yellow uniforms laughing with their teacher at a small school in Majnu-Ka-Tila, another shows them learning the Hindi alphabet. Rai has also captured a bakery in Bhopal, where Afghan men are seen baking their traditional bread. Another photo is of a Sri Lankan refugee family at the Tiruchirapalli airport, getting ready to return home.
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Mohammad Asif, living in Malviya Nagar, was one of the many refugees, who visited the exhibition on the opening day. The 53-year-old from Afghanistan worked as an officer-in-charge of education in Kandahar. “This is my life in pictures. Many people do not know us and look at us as illegal immigrants,” he says, “I miss the calm of Kandahar. As a child, when the land was not so polluted, after the rains the soil would smell like a bed of flowers.”
For Rai, these photographs are a repository of refugee stories. “We do not have documentation of what refugees do, what they have to deal with and how they are living their lives in another land, another culture. This becomes one such document,” he says.
The exhibition is on display till June 29 at Art Gallery, IIC.