The loner & his cam­era

Born to a sex-worker, Shankar Sarkar cap­tures the world as he sees it—at times starkly re­al­is­tic, at times poignantly nos­tal­gic, but all his images are cap­ti­vat­ing be­cause of the story they tell. Re­live his rough, yet in­spir­ing jour­ney through th­ese page

Mandate - - Photography - By Kakoli Poddar

Shankar Sarkar is a loner who found com­pan­ion­ship in his cam­era—the al­liance which al­lows him to cap­ture his dar­ling sub­jects: na­ture, in all its hues, scenes from ru­ral life and strug­gling chil­dren. His in­cli­na­tions are de­fined by his own yearn­ing, for his mem­o­ries of his un­happy child­hood in the vil­lage, which lead him to fo­cus his cam­era on chil­dren liv­ing in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions.

His lat­est se­ries Liv­ing on the Edge is based on his trips to the Sun­der­bans, where he was touched by the ex­treme dif­fi­cul­ties of its res­i­dents, peren­ni­ally bat­tling nat­u­ral calami­ties. “What struck me most is the un­end­ing hu­man en­deav­our to cling on to some­thing that is in­evitably con­demned to de­struc­tion, just be­cause it is where they be­long and where they have their roots. The em­bank­ments get eroded and some­times crash down like a pack of cards, swal­lowed by the river.”

Need­less to say, Shankar was moved by th­ese peo­ple’s daily fight with na­ture, their strug­gle to keep their roots in­tact. So, he de­cided to cap­ture their daily strug­gle for ex­is­tence and ded­i­cated Liv­ing on the Edge to the in­domitable spirit of th­ese fight­ers, un­daunted by all ad­ver­si­ties.

Shankar was just 11, when he was given a cam­era (from a UNICEF­sup­ported project for chil­dren of sex work­ers— Em­pow­er­ing Sex Work­ers’ Chil­dren through Pho­tog­ra­phy) to ex­plore the world around him. Now in his mid 20s, Shankar treats pho­tog­ra­phy as his pas­sion, his lan­guage of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not just a pro­fes­sion. For him it’s all about ex­press­ing his emo­tions. For in­stance, his photo se­ries ti­tled Fac­ing One’s Own is ded­i­cated to his mother, Kavita. He cre­ated black and white frames of her, shot over 12 years and won rave reviews in In­dia and abroad. The se­ries en­abled him to be the only In­dian rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the Guardian Gallery,

London, that fea­tured the works of pho­tog­ra­phers from Asia, Africa and Latin Amer­ica. More­over, he also earned the praise of crit­ics at the Chobi Mela in Dhaka, the Delhi Photo Fes­ti­val and at Ver­mont, USA. For Shankar, this ex­er­cise was a per­sonal jour­ney, a jour­ney which helped him see his mother, a for­mer sex worker, in a more sym­pa­thetic light.

As he learnt the ropes in pho­tog­ra­phy, his frame con­tin­ued to cap­ture his mother in var­ied moods—wait­ing in a lane for a client wear­ing a skirt, dressed in a sari light­ing diyas on Di­wali, sleep­ing with her part­ner, cook­ing in the lit­tle room, talk­ing to neigh­bours. As he strug­gled to come to terms with his mother’s pro­fes­sion and life, the cam­era, helped him re­solve his angst. Grad­u­ally, the process helped him be­come less judg­men­tal of his mother.

Since Kavita was en­grossed in her pro­fes­sion, Shankar spent his in­fancy and early child­hood with his grand­mother in Malka­n­giri, Orissa. He was five when he met his mother for the first time. He did not feel any kind of emo­tional pull. “I con­sid­ered my grand­mother to be my mother. I called her Ma through­out, till her re­cent death. When I first saw my mother, I felt that she was like any other woman. I turned away from her. My mother tried to bring me close by giv­ing me sweets and toys, but I sim­ply could not ac­cept her.”

Though he was too young to un­der­stand the im­pli­ca­tions of sex­work, he just could not fit into the claus­tro­pho­bic en­vi­ron­ment of the dingy red-light area. “I never had an emo­tional bond­ing with my mother. There were so many times when I reached home sim­ply fam­ished and found my mother’s room locked from inside. She was inside, en­ter­tain­ing some cus­tomer. I knocked on the door many times, but in vain. Lonely and hun­gry, I stood out­side help­lessly, with no­body to care for my de­jected soul.” Also, his mother by that time started liv­ing with a steady part­ner, with whom she lives even to­day. “He at times used to hit me when I re­fused to run er­rands for him. I think my mother loves him. Now that I have grown up, he doesn’t dare to raise hands on me.”

His re­sent­ment of his mother grew as he grew up and started re­al­is­ing the na­ture of her trade. It was height­ened by the fact that he faced hu­mil­i­a­tion and os­traci­sa­tion. “I was once fly­ing a kite which fell inside the premises of a house. They wouldn’t al­low me in as if their house would be tainted if I went in.” The teach­ers and fel­low stu­dents mis­be­haved with him for no fault of his. They abused him, call­ing his mother a ‘ bad woman’. “I hated go­ing to school. Teach­ers looked down on me and class­mates in­sulted me. Teach­ers made me do their chores, as they felt that was what I was fit for.” Things be­came so un­bear­able for the boy that he dropped out of school when he was in Class V. He started do­ing odd jobs, earn­ing a pit­tance do­ing me­nial work in sweat shops.

The frus­tra­tion cul­ti­vated and he fi­nally goaded his mother to give up her pro­fes­sion. Shankar’s fa­cil­i­ta­tor Su­vendu Chat­ter­jee, the di­rec­tor of the Dhaka-head­quar­tered Drik In­dia, is proud of his pro­tégé for his role in his mother’s change of pro­fes­sion. Su­vendu points out, “Shankar has mo­ti­vated her to a large ex­tent in com­ing out of it.” Shankar ex­plains, “I would stay put in her room, and refuse to budge. I would re­main in the room for days, and she thus could not en­ter­tain any client.”

Grad­u­ally, Kavita re­alised how in­tensely her son hated the sex-work, and she be­gan to look for other ways of earn­ing. It’s been five years since Kavita be­gan work­ing in an NGO, which makes bags, gar­ments and other ac­ces­sories. This UK-based NGO, Freeset helps in re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing pros­ti­tutes, by giv­ing them em­ploy­ment in their work­shop, and the prod­ucts are ex­ported to Europe. She, how­ever, con­tin­ues to live with her part­ner in the same grimy room in the red-light area of Seth Ba­gan where she has lived for years. Shankar spends most of his time drowned in work and still hates liv­ing there. He still craves a breath of fresh air amidst the open­ness of na­ture and pines for the days in his vil­lage, where he lived with his grand­mother. Thus his lens nat­u­rally zooms in on pas­toral scenes, cap­tur­ing their beauty and rugged­ness and at times his lens searches for his lost child­hood in the faces of chil­dren. But, with or with­out pho­tog­ra­phy, he still holds on to his dream to have a lit­tle house in his vil­lage, and take his mother far away from her past.

Fac­ing One’s Own

Fac­ing One’s Own

Fac­ing One’s Own

Fac­ing One’s Own

Na­ture

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