In 1990, at the throbbing Dhanmondi area of Dhaka, 35-year-old photographer Shahidul Alam and three other friends ran a strange office called Drik. There was a noisy dot matrix printer. The XT computer came without a hard drive: two floppy disks uploaded the operating system. When the electricity went their computer had to be reloaded. Their bathroom doubled up as a dark room. “We started publishing from day one. Postcards, bookmarks and even a company calendar were produced by friendly printers on credit. We were brought up to believe that calendars were all about flowers, pretty women, mosques and waterfalls. We took photographs and printed them with social messages in black and white as wall calendars. It worked, and we were able to sell them door-to-door and pay back the printers,” says Alam.
About 26 years later, Alam, 61, is in Kolkata to talk about his staggering body of work at Beyond Frontiers, an exposition of photography, film, music and conversations on the shared history of India and Bangladesh. The event makes full use of its open-air venue — Rabindra Sarobar, a sprawling park by a man-made lake in the middle of the city.
The founder of Dhaka-based photo agency Drik and Majority World, a London-based organisation, Alam is viewed as a consistent voice of protest against prevalent Western biases and prejudices. Alam walks onto the stage wearing a kurta and jeans, a shawl snugly wrapped around him. He takes the mike and breaks into Bengali to address what he presumes is a largely Bengali crowd. There is some gentle chiding from some members of the audience who don’t follow the language — Alam is almost disappointed. “It represents our colonial mindset. Language can be intimidating. I find it sad that events such as these get linguistically hijacked for a small non-Bengali-speaking audience. It would be inconceivable for a public discussion to take place in any language other than English in the UK, regardless of the demography of the audience. The same happens in many other situations and we often accept it without question,” he says.
It is this narrative that Alam has tried to change over the years. Tired of living under the shadow of pity that the West has reserved for Bangladesh, Alam and his friends decided to become their own storytellers. “Knowing we had to compete with better-resourced entities in the West, we set up the nation’s first email network using Fidonet. Banglarights, our human rights portal, annoyed the government; our telephone lines were switched off for 30 months. Mainstream galleries turned down exhibitions which were shamelessly political and often critical of the establishment, so we built our own. The government sent riot police to close down our shows on several occasions. But we carried on,” says Alam.
Eventually, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, a photography school based in Dhaka, was born in 1998. The word Pathshala, a traditional Sanskrit word for a seat of learning, is generally associated with the shade of trees in open fields. There are no walls, no classrooms, no formal structures, just wisdom being shared. The photography school founded by Alam, aimed to recreate that environment.
“Having decided that the language of images was the tool to use to challenge Western hegemony and to address social inequality within the country, we had begun to put in place the building blocks to make it happen. The agency was serving people already in the trade, but opportunities for learning had to be created. There wasn’t a single credible organisation for higher education in photography in the region. One had to be built,” says Alam.
In 2000, Alam and the Drik Picture Library Ltd launched Chobi Mela, Bangladesh’s first international festival of photography, which has since grown to be the biggest photography event in South Asia.
It won’t be an exaggeration to say that Pathshala and Chobi Mela have transformed the media and visual arts landscape in Bangladesh,a country torn by political and social turmoil. “Today, approximately 50 per cent of the staff photographers of leading Bangladeshi newspapers are Pathshala alumni,” says Alam.
In recent months, the price for the freedom of expression has been paid by many with blood. In the last year alone, four bloggers were systematically murdered by extremist forces in the country for airing their atheist and secular views. Is Pathshala and by extension, Chobi Mela, the only bastion for liberal and creative thought there? “There are other organisations who are making a difference. Some play a promotional role, like the Bengal Foundation and The Samdani Foundation, but there are also smaller artist-run initiatives like the Britto Trust,” says Alam.