A charming old building in a public square in Kyiv basks in glorious sunshine with blue skies above while a Cossack monument depicting a warrior spearing a twin-headed dragon stands in silhouette in the foreground. This was an ordinary scene in the Ukrainian capital in early January 2022.
But, barely a month later, the skies turned smoky grey, several iconic buildings and historic landmarks, from Kyiv to Kharkiv shelled, and battle-scarred public squares and a large number of its scared citizens huddled beneath crowded bunkers belie the scenes of merriments witnessed last Christmas and New Year in the country.
Delhi-based photographer Avantika Meattle and her husband were a regular tourist couple in Ukraine from late December to early January, but she had not imagined that the photographs taken by her, would unbeknownst become “frozen in time”.
About 90 photographs of capital Kyiv and the city of Lviv taken by her are displayed in multiple media as part of a three-day exhibition titled “Untold Ukraine (Glimpses)” which opened at India Habitat Centre Tuesday evening.
After inaugurating the exhibition, Lok Sabha MP Shashi Tharoor said these images in a way “humanise Ukraine” for those who haven’t been there, and the photographs are fascinating, but there is “degree of poignancy” to it as well as to the fate of these beautiful buildings in the wake of “reckless bombings” since the conflict began.
Following weeks of escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the latter had announced a military offensive against the eastern European country on February 24. And, as tanks later rolled into its territory, Kyiv had termed it as “full-scale invasion” which Ukraine led by its defiant President Volodymyr Zelensky has been resisting with all its might, garnering praise and solidarity from world over.
Meattle said she had chosen Ukraine randomly on the map, but more so due to its beautiful heritage buildings, and it “pains me to see the suffering of the people of Ukraine and its beautiful cities”.
“I fell in love with Ukraine, its warm people and its colourful culture just like India has, and the Ukraine I saw, and what people are seeing in news now, are poles apart. From cheery blue skies to dark grey skies, from merry-making Ukrainian celebrating Christmas and New Year to scared people hiding in bunkers, dodging bullets and their senses bombarded with sounds of shellings, it is terrible,” she told PTI.
“I feel, my memories of Ukraine being bombed too,” she said in an emotional tone.
The photographs, colour and in monochrome, in big and small frames have been arranged on the walls of the venue to convey the sense of loss and the contrast between the Ukraine seen in news today and what it looked like barely a month ago before the war began.
Many of the photographs capture the current pathos of the city retrospectively, and trigger a sense of solidarity for the people suffering in Ukraine.
Amateur videos taken by Meattle of people eating casually at restaurants, watching opera performances or a man dressed as a Santa Claus walking the streets with buildings illuminated all around in Ukraine heightens the tragic turn the country had taken in a matter of few weeks.
“My favourite place from Ukraine visit was a small, historic church I visited in Lviv, near our hotel, on New Year’s Day. It was a quaint beauty and I keep worrying what could have happened to that church or other old, beautiful buildings.
“In fact, I want to go back and stand with people of Ukraine in this hour of crisis, not just with an exhibition but actually being with them,” Meattle said, and pointed to the black-and-white photograph, she took of the church, which is also on display.
She claimed that urged by her emotions, she recently tried to apply for travel to Ukraine via a neighbouring country, but the government “rightfully rejected it” as it is not safe, since the war is still on.
Tharoor during the tour of the exhibition on Tuesday evening, stopped by in front of many exhibits, particularly one capturing an image which depicts crucified Jesus Christ in front of St Andrew’s Church – Bernadine monastery in the Old Town of Lviv, and a monumental column and some of the historic buildings in the backdrop, the picture somewhat mirroring the fate of Ukraine today. Meattle told Tharoor that she worked on the captions of the photographs after the war started.
One of the captions reads: “Lviv Buildings – New Year Day in Lviv Ukraine. The buildings are strong, imposing and majestic. The doors are big and strong, and keeping the residents warm in tough cold. Tremendous beauty, grandeur and strength of the suburban buildings in Lviv in Western Ukraine”.
Some of the images of iconic landmarks and natural sites of Ukraine have been depicted in acrylic-made prints embossed on glass panels, two of which are exhibited on large vertical panels dangling from a horizontal frame.
“The glass also depicts the fragility of Ukraine and its heritage, and idea is to let people relate to the sufferings during a war,” Meattle said.
There is also a special chamber set up at the exhibition venue, in which she has displayed a few images using “lenticular photography” techniques, as also photos in “bioscope-style boxes” besides some of the postcards made out the displayed images.
Tharoor told PTI that he has never been to Ukraine, though he had opportunity twice in the last few years. “There were competing invitations, so couldn’t make it. But, I have been to largely all the countries that neighbour Ukraine”.
At the opening ceremony, he said, the large number of people present at the event itself was an act of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.