Bangla Surreal: Shadman Shahid Photography

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Bangladeshi photographer Shadman Shahid was recently selected by the prestigious British Journal of Photography for its Ones to Watch–2016 listof emerging global photographic talent. A graduate of Dhaka’s famous Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, his work emerges from a deeply personal space and expresses itself in moving documentary as well as intimate and carefully constructed psychological imaginings.

Last week, Scroll.in had a conversation with Shahid about his work, his vision and the challenges of being an artist in contemporary Bangladesh.

Tell us a bit about your family background. Was it artistic? And what drew you to the camera?
I was born to two loving and overprotective parents. They are both journalists. I grew up in a joint family and my paternal uncle was also living with us. He was an artist. I enjoyed his company and he was the resource for art, music and culture for me. However, I was too safe and satisfied with my life to be interested in art at that point. I started photography after he died very young. I like to think growing up watching him influenced me.

At one point in my life, I had decided to become a filmmaker. I wanted to hone my film-making skills. One of my Pathshala teachers introduced us to the work of Julia Margaret Cameron. About her photograph “The Echo”, the teacher said that “it’s one of those pictures that will haunt you at night when you are trying to sleep.” I could see what he meant and why he was so passionate about photography. It was one of the moments that drew me closer towards the camera. [Full article from Scroll.in and more photos]

Cash and Passion

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A friend who still works in the aid sector but who like so many harbours a desire to pursue other things sent me an article this week. Why do aid workers leave this line of work? presented the findings of a survey that quizzed about 1000 aid workers. It came as no surprise that many of the ‘gripes’ about the sector I’ve hit on in this blog and in my Devex series, were confirmed. In spades.

One of the themes that always comes up in this conversation is ‘if I don’t puruse a career in aid, then where and how do I make a living?’ There are two aspects to this question: passion and cash.

Passion in the sense of, “Am I going to find the same sense of purpose I have now, as a teacher, taxi driver or banker?” (Given the high levels of negativity about the aid sector from the same respondees, this anxiety is not without irony!)

The second part of the equation is cash. “How in the world am I ever going to get paid as much as I do now, with all the benefits of frequent free travel, paid housing, pension funds and subsidised education?”

These are existential questions. They are—to a point—essential questions. But they can also be comfortable questions. The sort we love wrestling with but enjoy not coming to a conclusion about.

Eventually, some aid workers will make the leap out the sector. Hopefully, with both questions (and all the others about family, schools and aging parents) nicely answered. But if you’re like me you’ll probably have one mostly answered and the rest still frighteningly open and uncertain.

I named this blog Life After Aid because I believe there is such a thing. And not just a miserable, slow-decline-to-oblivion in the suburbs but an exciting, enriching and rewarding life. Easily as good as any mission or project or friend we ever encountered in our humanitarian work.

In a way, this is the first proper post of Life After Aid. Everything up to this point has been about life in aid. And in answer to the many people who have enquired about it, I’ll share a bit of how I make ends meet without a regular aid salary coming in.

Ultimately, I left the aid sector to write. I have a contract (just got the advance last week!) to write two books. I write a couple of columns for an online newspaper. I have a pretty strong idea of what my next novel will be about. And the one after that, too.

Even though the publisher’s advance was happily received, and I get paid for my articles, I am under no illusions that writing will support the lifestyle I’ve come to expect and aspire to. At least in the next year or two.

This may be a good time to digress a bit. My aspirations for personal wealth are quite healthy. I’ve got two young children in a fee-devouring school. I’ve got my eye on a new car and regular trips to the US to spend time with my aging father as well as vacating our two bedroom apartment in favour of a multi-bedroomed house and garden. All as soon as possible!

Getting to the point of allowing such luxurious and wealthy plans into my consciousness was a struggle in its own right. I mean, 30 years of aid work, of being nose deep and obsessed with poverty, deprivation, economic injustice and systemic exclusion from wealth, has reinforced the belief that having lots of money is somehow inherently ‘wrong’. Or, at least unseemly. ‘Rich aid worker’ is one of those oxymorons no one likes to utter in public.

I may share some thoughts on how I changed my attitude towards personal wealth later but suffice it to say that when I considered how I was going to make a living outside of the aid sector, I was not thinking about scraping by. I was looking for a way to make a steady, sustainable and sizeable income. An income that would afford me the freedom and wherewithal to write, travel and photograph.

To be honest, there aren’t too many options. Especially, once I factored in an additional parameter: no more office jobs, no more senior management jobs, no more ‘leadership roles’, in fact, no more employment in the ‘normal’ economy.

Other than Powerball, the only legal option seemed to be to become an entrepreneur.

Yvonne, my wife, and I have set up a business in the personal development industry. We work with an American company and offer a range of subscription based online courses as well as Live events. We work from home. We work from the library. We work in the car as we wait for the football training to end. We work wherever we have wifi, which is pretty much anywhere. We work about 20 hours a week.

I have to admit, I was not an immediate supporter of this particular business plan. I’ve been raised and have nurtured the idea of Me (or at least a big part of Me) being co-equal with my career, salary and position. I offered the usual resistance to the idea: home businesses are dorky (at best) and predatory (at worst). They never work. They are all pyramid schemes. Just stick with a job and wait life out till pension time.

But when I turned my attention to the reality of what that final sentence actually meant, my heart sank. I knew that staying in a job I didn’t like meant dousing the flame of my purpose. In the end, it was a no-brainer. Rather than seeing a home business as a dorky scam I looked upon it as an adventure.

The advantages of a home business are many. As aid workers we love travelling and not being tied to a desk. Flexibility and portability are a big part of why we became aid workers in the first place. Some home businesses do tie you down. You’ve got physical stock to keep and ship, or your market is so niche it’s only viable in one particular country. But for most home (or any) businesses these days the market is global and products are online or in the cloud.

So, big non-negotiable Number 1, the ability to keep travelling, is a Big Tick with an online business.

Big non-negotiable Number 2, to still retain meaning in the work I do, is also ticked.   We aid workers spend our lives all fired up (until we get burned out) about community development. We are gung ho about helping other people develop themselves into innovative, resilient, strong, healthy, economically viable and aware individuals and communities. But when it comes closer to home most of us ignore developing these very same qualities in ourselves.

Running a business where my daily job description is implementing more productive and positive ways to make my relationships, my body and my mind strong, resilient, innovative and flexible is exhilarating. Helping others who are looking to get more out of life and make a positive contribution is pretty fulfilling. It is refreshing to work with people on implementing positive change in their lives without any of the political agendas and management bulldust and donor interference that characterizes ‘aid’. It’s person to person assistance. The best kind.

Finally, an online small cottage business can be very lucrative. Since we don’t have any overheads for inventory and have no employees, our expenses are incredibly low. At the same time, our ‘parent’ company, which provides the content of the personal development courses and events, has structured itself in a way that allows us to keep between 75-100% of all our earnings. In any industry or business of any sort, that is almost unheard of.

Big, non-negotiable Number 3—earn as much if not more than I did as a senior aid worker—a Big Tick.

[If you’re curious you can check out our websites 1 and 2 ]

Here’s my advice for those who want to seriously consider this option for life after aid.

  • This option is best for people who  have other passions to pursue and who want the time and cash to pursue them. If you’re happy with the 9-9 office culture of NGOs and Aid then this is probably something you’d find too unstructured.
  • A home business is like any other serious commitment you make, be it buying a house or a car or changing careers. You need to invest money up front and be willing to not earn much or anything for a few months until you get some momentum up and learn the ropes.

But if you can handle those two, then Life After Aid can be truly inspiring and rewarding.

Remembering the Big Man: Rahat Ali Khan and Michael Brooks

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is in fine form here. Michael Brook, not so much so, but still a good album.

Harmonium

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An interesting album with some truly moving and exhilarating performances. As I mentioned in my most recent article for Scroll.in it was through a remix of one of Nusrat’s qawwalis (Dam Qalandar Mast) in the early 1990s that qawwali went mainstream. Or at least as mainstream as any non-European spiritual music is ever going to go!

Canadian guitarist Michael Brook, though uncredited on Mustt Mustt, played a huge role in creating the sound and ensuring the massive impact of that album on the earholes of millions of new fans. He later went on to produce (and get credited for) Night Songs another hugely popular qawwali-fusion album in 1996.

In this instance, a performance in honour of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the combination of qawwali and western music just doesn’t click like in the earlier works. The drums especially are irritating, adding little more than an annoying rumble in the…

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Fragile Reality: The Photographs of Saqib Mumtaz

My latest from Scroll.in

one photo @ a time

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Photography is touted for its supreme capacity to capture reality. The frightening ease with which the physical verisimilitude of a scene or a person can be reproduced is what makes photography unique, compelling and addicting. The photograph reflects back to us what we think exists. We confer our belief in the image and thereby, reinforce the mental trick that we believe what we see.

Saqib Mumtaz, a Kashmiri photographer based in Delhi, begs to differ. Photography, for him, is not about capturing an objective reality, but rather an exploration of the possibility within reality. “I present a scene in the way that I perceive it, rather than how it appears,” he told Scroll recently. “For me, the subjectivity of a photograph and how that links back to the photographer, is the critical aspect.”

For the full version (with photos ) of my latest Scroll.in article click HERE

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Of Madmen and Trains

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On one of those fabled hot days on the plains of India I was stuck inside a 3rd Class coach between Lucknow and Pratapgarh. The train had not moved for a half hour. Neither had the breeze. The air hung like wet towels.

My father was snoozing on a berth. I stared into the bright afternoon light praying that the signal would fall. The scrubby, beaten earth did nothing but smash the sunlight back into my eyes.

A Sikh suddenly appeared in our cubicle. He sat on a bench a few feet away from me. I may have glanced at him but paid him no special attention. Still the train didn’t budge. I must have closed my eyes for a few minutes because I was woken by loud shouting.

The Sikh was agitated. The hairs on his chest glistened with beads of sweat. His beard was not the bushiest but his turban was quite big indicating a lot of hair lay underneath–baking, baking, slowly away.

He shouted loudly in the way madmen do. At everyone but no one in particular. His eyes darted about the cubicle as he repeatedly smoothed his beard with his hand. I couldn’t make out what he was saying but whatever it was it was at full volume.

He jumped up for a second, and seemed to be heading toward the door. But then he fell back on the berth unexpectedly. A few heads peeked around from other cubicles. What’s all this, then?

The Sikh shouted. “I am my Yes!”

He beat his chest as if it was a dhol.

“I am MY yes!”

I was trying not to freak out at him freaking out. He glared at me with opaque eyes. I sensed if I moved away he’d not follow me. I trotted down the aisle and jumped off the train.

Inside, the muffled affirmations of his existence carried on. The Ticket Collector eventually showed up and escorted the distressed man off the train, which jerked into motion around the same time. We left him behind, still shouting. Still confused.

I’ve often wondered what became of the Sikh. Was he truly pagal? The incident seemed to provide empirical evidence of the oft-repeated joke about Sikhs: that at midday they went barking mad because the heat built up in their turbans. I pitied him the way he was so unceremoniously abandoned by Indian Railways. How did he, indeed, did he ever, make it back home?

Though I’ve gotten a few good laughs out of that story, it came to mind today because I’ve been reflecting about those words, “I Am”.

**According to seers and gurus the words “I AM” represent the existence of God. When Moses asks the burning bush that has so bizarrely commanded him to go to Egypt and free the Israelites, “Who are you?”, the bush replies,

According to seers and gurus the words “I AM” represent the existence of God. When Moses asks the burning bush that has so bizarrely commanded him to go to Egypt and free the Israelites, “Who are you?”, the bush replies,

I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ Say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob–has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna,

I AM the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me.

There is an interesting argument put forward in a document called the I Am Discourses by a man named St. Germain that goes like this:

Life, in all its activities everywhere manifest, is God in Action. I AM is the Activity of that Life. The first expression of every individual, everywhere in the Universe, either in spoken word, silent thought or feeling is “I AM”, recognizing its own conquering Divinity.

So I’ve been mulling all this over in my mind of late.

I AM is the name of God.

Not the God of any particular religion or sect but ‘god’, the Fountainhead of all Life, the Universal Intelligence, the Tao, the Way, the Friend that all mystics and seers know about and refer to. That God. The Infinite Source of all Consciousness. The Dream in which we all dream our individual dreams.

Whatever words we use to describe this ‘Force’, IT apparently refers to Itself as I AM.

If that is the case (and it makes sense to me) then each time the word I Am comes out of my mouth, I channel the voice of whatever that grand entity is that we know is all around us but that we can’t see.

For most of my life I’ve said things like, I am an idiot. I am a nuisance. I am no good. I am pretty average. I am a hack. I am unable to do that. I am too dumb. I am weak. I can’t. And interestingly, I’ve piled up years and years of evidence that confirms these attributes: half written books; abandoned New Year’s resolutions by the score, difficult relationships, low bank balances, multiple gym membership cards and on and on.

Pretty ordinary god, eh? Instead of life, liberty and bliss I get the fizz, the failure and the disappointment. Which raises another intriguing question about this I AM character. It seems to be as weak as piss. It does whatever I say. I call IT (I AM) a loser and voila, I lose! Not exactly the sort of Mighty Strong OMNIPOTENT Force we’ve been led to believe. More like a Farce.

All the seers and prophets and gurus also say : be careful what you think about yourself. Beware of how you use those words I AM. Because what you think and say, turns into ‘reality’. Witness the evidence I described above.

So lately I’ve been making a point of following those words I AM only with positive, life-affirming descriptions. Like I AM strong. I AM smart. I AM capable. I AM worthy. I AM cool.

Simple little change really. But it’s making me feel much better. And the supporting evidence is already arriving.

Which gets me back to that hot afternoon on the train on the plains of India and that poor distressed Sikh who insisted, “I AM my Yes!”

Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese film director said,

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” 

Perhaps what I witnessed was not a man who had lost his senses at all, but an Unknown Prophet who was simply chanting the name of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry of Sophia Pandeya

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Sophia Pandeya is a South Asian-American poet currently based in California. Her poetry is luscious and verdant. Meanings and ideas sprout out from each line, some reaching for the sky while others burrow deep into the soil. For the past year or two I have been reading and falling in love with her poems.

Pandeya has published in prestigious journals such as The Adirondack Review and her first volume, Peripheries is currently available on Amazon and receiving excellent reviews. On her website Sophia identifies herself as “an in-between, an inhabitant of hyphen”. That thing, the hyphen, is both a separator and a joiner. And an indicator of something ‘missing’. An ambiguous, even scary, place for most people. But for Pandeya, it is home and a wellspring of inspiration.

Scroll caught up with Sophia for a discussion about her tangled roots and absorbing poetry.

[Full article with audio of poems as appeared in Scroll.in]