Cradled by the mighty Arabian Sea and on the shores of Manora Island is Shri Varun Dev Mandir, a temple dedicated to the Hindu God of water. But one can also spot images of Sikh guru, Guru Nanak inside this 16th century temple, which is situated on the peninsula, south of Port of Karachi. “When I visited the temple, restoration work was underway and I found out that the team involved came from all faiths,” writes 31-year-old Mobeen Ansari in his latest photo book, White in the Flag. Ansari clicked and it became the last photograph in the book.
Launched last month at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts in Islamabad, the book comprises photographs that capture religious festivities, rituals, traditions and places of worship of the minority communities in Pakistan.
It all started when Ansari started photographing empty churches and spires of Jain temples in Rawalpindi, also his birthplace. This was before he had “officially” started working on the book in 2010. It was at the Punja Sahib Gurdwara in Hasan Abdal, 40 km from Islamabad, that he captured religious practices and ways of worship for the first time. “The project took over seven years, a lot of research, travel and connecting with different religious communities,” says Ansari, in an email interview from Lahore.
In over 120 photos that adorn the pages of the book, Ansari captures the celebrations of the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak at Gurudwara Janam Sthan at Nankana Sahib, his birth place. One can see Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali in the temples of Tharparkar, a district in Sindh province which was dominated in the pre-Partition era by the Hindus, who still make for over 20 per cent of the population. There are photos of the festivals celebrated in the Kalash tribe in different seasons, and of people who follow Baha’i teachings and the Parsis.
A highlight of the book is the photo of the Mewa Shah graveyard in Karachi, a Jewish cemetery, where the tombstones were engraved not just in English and Hebrew but also in Marathi. Ansari has also clicked the gravekeeper Mehr-dun-Nisa, who isn’t Jewish but her family has been taking care of the cemetery for centuries. There is also one of the first known photos of Jews in Karachi, taken at the first meeting of the All Indian Israeilite League in December 1918.
From the mountains of Chitral where the indigenous Kalash community resides, to various streets, nooks and crannies in urban cities where Ansari photographed churches, temples, gurudwaras and the parched deserts of Sindh (which has a huge Hindu population), the photographer covered most parts of the country. Although the book is out, the project is still ongoing. He recently photographed a Buddhist community and a Zorastrian festival called Navjote. “Ever since I released the book, many communities have reached out and educated me about more festivals. I plan to continue clicking and adding to its future volumes,” says the photographer, who has exhibited his works in America, Italy, China and Iraq in the past.
The seeds for the project were sown in different stages of his life. Ansari’s grandmother would narrate stories about her life before the Partition. “I discovered that her only best friend to date was a Parsi; though they haven’t met since the Partition. What she told me about Parsi culture and customs really fascinated me,” says Ansari. His father’s best friend is Ronald Umar Khitab, a Christian man. who had donated blood to Ansari’s father 35 years ago, when he had abdominal tuberculosis. “Ronny uncle saved his life. This made me understand at a young age that no matter your faith, caste and creed, all blood is the same,” says Ansari. So Christmas and Easter celebrations have been commonplace for the Ansari household.
A graduate in fine arts from the National College of Arts in Lahore, he made the camera his best friend on seeing his grandparents’ and father’s love for photography. Tapu Javeri’s work, a well-known fashion photographer and his uncle, also inspired him.
His trips gave him a treasure trove of heart-warming anecdotes to share, like when he struggled to clean off the colours after attending Holi in the small town of Mithi. “My aunt advised me to use turpentine oil, I rubbed as much as possible and boy it was burning. Later a Parsi friend gave me soap made of butter, which made everything come off. It was wonderful to celebrate with one minority group and then to be helped by another to clean it off,” he says.
A few days ago, Ansari was photographing the Buddhists in Mehrabpur, in Naushahro Firoz district of Sindh. “The driver was tired from the long and difficult journey, so the community insisted that we stay the night and laid out charpoys outside a temple complex. Under the stars, we discussed religion and when we wrapped up the conversation close to dawn, he said ‘tareeka alag, baat ek hi’” recalls Ansari.
The title of the book, White in the Flag, is to remind people of the thin strip in the Pakistani Flag which refers to its religious minorities. “I saw short-sightedness in the US and when I visited India last year with a group of photographers, some fundamentalists (Shiv Sena workers) had crashed in and made the police intervene. Narrow- minded bigotry is present all over the world. At home, I feel it as a duty to sensitise people on respecting the rights of minorities,” he says.
An attack of meningitis at a very early age had impacted Ansari’s hearing, eyesight, and balance which makes conversing tough. “I have to listen very carefully and ask people to repeat. When I mispronounce words, people think I’m a foreigner. But then I get to have a very frank conversation and this challenge becomes a starting point of every conversation. Not being able to hear also makes me focus more on what I see and feel, and easier to create imagery through photography,” he answers. His future projects include a sequel to his first photo book, Dharkan: the Heartbeat of a Nation, which features portraits and stories of iconic people and the unsung heroes of Pakistan, and another which is in collaboration with Arpana Gvalani, who owns Gostana — a café in Mumbai and is the music curator of Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. It will feature portraits of Indian actors, writers and directors who found ways to connect with Pakistan. These will include Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Kalki Koechlin, among others.