By Jayshree Shukla
Cultural diversity is the most important asset of society. To me, it is the most precious legacy any people can have. When cultures collide, when people of different backgrounds engage with one another, there is a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. No single culture or people could have achieved what humanity has, alone. It is through interaction, intermingling and sharing that we progress.
India, in particular, has a huge amount of diversity in terms of culture and faith and language. While it should be seen as a great asset, it often poses a threat to those who are not open to a way of life different from their own.
I decided to photograph my city, Delhi, in all its tremendous diversity. Delhi has been the capital of India for long stretches of time in history as also in the present time. It was home to many rulers and dynasties which came from outside and made India their home. The interaction of these rulers with the local population created a beautiful synthesis, and Delhi became a showcase of that synthesis. It is the city that hosted some of the most prominent Sufi saints – Hazrat Nizamuudin Auliya, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Naseeruddin Chiragh-e-Sami among many others. The city itself rose and fell eight times, and has remained the heart of India for the most part.
Delhi developed its own cuisine. As vegetarian Hindu traditions interacted with the foods of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Persia, a rich and nuanced cuisine developed in the city. Kachori, chaat, jalebi, samosa, biryani, chhole bhature are some examples of the street food available in Delhi. There is amazing variety, and there are foods that are also linked to seasons. Cooling sherbets and fruit chaat in the summer. Hearty niharis in winter.
Delhi has its own gharana in the sphere of classical music. It has been home to poets like Amir Khusrau, Mir and Mirza Ghalib. Rekhta and then Urdu developed with the writings and poetry of these men.However, as times change, the plurality and diversity which should be celebrated is also seen as a threat. Some of this perception is due to politics, which is always divisive, and the rest a competition for scarce resources.
Even as the political climate was changing and other cultures were being discriminated against, my interest in the plurality of the culture of my city was deepening. I began photographing the results of this fusion, this synthesis. Everywhere I went, I was looking for the unique culture that this city had developed, and which seemed imperilled to me now.
I started photographing heritage monuments in the Lodhi Garden to begin with. But as my interest grew deeper, I started exploring other areas of my city. Being a woman, it was not always easy for me to wander the streets alone. Particularly when it grew dark. I needed a partner in crime and I found one in my family driver, Mohammed Iqrar. I found it easier and safer to walk the lonely bylanes of the city in the evenings with him. Soon, it grew to be a habit, and now we always go together on these journeys. He too is learning about the heritage and culture of this city, and is developing an interest in photography.
I consciously decided to photograph the ways of life of people from cultures and faiths other than my own. Being from the majority community, I was especially interested in promoting and celebrating the minority cultures of my city.
The one impediment that I have faced repeatedly is that I am unable to photograph women as freely as I am able to photograph men on the streets. Quite simply because in the conservative worlds which I often explore and document, women are barely visible outside the home. Also, photographing women arouses much more suspicion than photographing men.
The whole purpose of my endeavour is to build platforms and bridges between people. To make visible those who live on the margins of society, and are often invisible to the privileged. To help further the process of synthesis and fusion from which my city has benefitted so richly in the past.
(The author is born and bred in Delhi, and regards herself as a Dehlavi. She is a heritage buff and an amateur street photographer.)