With his portrait of Wandoh, an IT professional living in India for over a decade, who comes from Chad in Africa, photographer Mahesh Shantaram captures a private moment from his everyday life. Seated next to his two children on a bed, as he puts them off to sleep, Wandoh clasps onto one of their tiny hands. The image is a far cry from when Wandoh made headlines in 2013 — his swollen face flashing across newspapers, as he became a victim of racist slur.
Wandoh was attacked by two men riding on a bike, and called names, only for asking them to drive properly. As people looked on, he was beaten by more than 10 men, only to be left behind with a bruised face and an injured back. With this photograph hanging at Tasveer gallery in Bangalore, Shantaram not only hopes to create an image that “defies the stereotype of a man”, when a single father takes care of his children, but also wishes to bring out the theme of everyday racism members of his community are subjected to.
With the incident remaining stuck in his mind, Shantaram heard in January this year about a 21-year-old Tanzanian student being beaten up and stripped by a local mob in the city. He decided to go deeper into the issue. The end result is “The African Portraits”, a series looking into the lives of African students living in India. Starting with Soladevanahalli, home to a large concentration of the African population in his home city, Shantaram, 39, began tracing the lives of the African community in Delhi, Jaipur and Manipal as well. He also tracked few of the survivors of racial attacks on Facebook. “Since Bollywood movies have a deep penetration in Africa, they have a different image of India. But their world comes crashing down when they get poorly treated as soon as they land here,” he says.
The exhibition, also slated to travel to Delhi and Mumbai, has 19 intimate portraits, including that of one Hassan, standing in his balcony with the cityscape in the backdrop. Hassan, a student of marketing in Bangalore, had confessed to the photographer that he has often been asked if they wear clothes in Africa. In his accompanying text to the photograph, Shantaram writes in Hassan’s own words, “Do you think we started wearing clothes only after coming to India?” Shantaram says his sole purpose with the project is to gather as much information as he can about the community and present it in a way that others can consume. “An artist’s role is to hold a mirror to the society. Everyone can then decide whether they want to change or not,” he says.