Do Goats Go To Heaven?

The last meal. Dhanmondi. Rd 9A. 12th September 2016
The last meal. Dhanmondi. Rd 9A. 12th September 2016

Awake, deep in the silence of the night
I dread the sound, I’ll hear your bleat tonight
Your tiny toes tied together with twine
Your tiny body weighed down by people fine

Children circling, some in fright, others in glee
Butcher man with knife, crouching on his knee
You’ll struggle in vain, your bleat a garbled cry
Blood will spurt, red floor, no questions why

Is someone there, another goat, a baby even?
Who wants you, regardless of who goes to heaven
What God needs blood, as evidence of love?
What sacrifice in swapping, money for life above?

A shopping spree, celebrations on TV
What’s one goat less or more for you and me?
It is quiet again, a respite from the heat
The sound remains, I’ll forever hear your bleat

Shahidul Alam
12th September 2016
Dhaka

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Forest of Tides: The Sundarbans

Written by Louis Werner Photographed by Shahidul Alam / DRIK

Split not quite in half by the border between India to the west and Bangladesh to the east, crowning the Bay of Bengal, the world’s most complex river delta works like South Asia’s showerhead—one the size of Lebanon or Connecticut. Fed by Himalayan snowmelt and monsoon runoff, carrying a billion tons a year of Asian landmass suspended as sediment, the three great flows of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna rivers all end in one vast estuarial tangle, one of Earth’s great water filters, the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Continue reading

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Why Biman Fails

The long queue outside is nowadays usual. But I was unperturbed. I had come in early and there were the Hajj passengers to photograph. The cat strolling through the airport was somewhat amusing. A man, who could have been Chinese, gave it some food. The cat knew his way around the place. I had found cat pooh on several occasions before, but now I had the source file!

Alarm bells should have rung when I found no notice of the flight on the electronic board. The lack of people at the Biman counter was a bigger case for alarm. My friend Porimol, a journalist from the Daily Star, who was also going to Kathmandu was in the queue. At least I was in the right place! It could have just been “Biman Time” I convinced myself. When no one had turned up by 10:00 am, we all went off to the Biman Sales counter. At least there was a Biman employee there. “We have had nothing official” they said, but hear that the flight might be cancelled. They had no arrangements for rerouting, or any other arrangement. Their excuse for not letting passengers know had some logic. Since they themselves hadn’t been told, what could they tell us?

No attempt to inform passengers that flight BG701 to #Kathmandu cancelled #whybimanfails #eavig #Biman #bangladesh

A photo posted by Shahidul Alam (@shahidul001) on

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PATHSHALA’S RESPONSE TO BDNEWS24.COM’S REPORT

Pathshala Campus
Pathshala Campus

A report on Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, published by the online news portal bdnews24.com, has come to our attention (“Shahidul Alam’s Pathshala operates without affiliation,” bdnews24.com, 6 August 2016). Unsubstantiated allegations, backbiting and innuendo and the absence of cross checking characterise the ‘report.’ It is a shoddy piece of journalism. Continue reading

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On the ‘uncertified’ Pathshala

At a time when our entire education system is in crisis, the quality of education is in question and the values that student’s inculcate is a source of fear. A student of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, in response to questions about the validity of the very certificate he has obtained, talks passionately about the institution’s pedagogic model and how he has been transformed by it.

by Mahtab Nafis 

Mahtab Nafis
Mahtab Nafis

A letter to whom it may concern

BEFORE joining Pathshala, I had studied in nine schools and one university (all certified) in this country. But never before had I found an environment similar to the one at Pathshala. South Asian Media Institute, founded by Shahidul Alam. Forget about competing, none of them are even light years close.

From a very early age I had sincere doubts and disagreements with the ‘socially accepted’ and ‘certified’ educational systems. For, all I had seen was a bunch of sheep-like people following a curriculum given by a governing body or authority without assessing, questioning or having an opinion on the teaching method or the materials. It seemed that people blindly followed the dictum ‘this is how things are’, an attitude which I could never accept. Everywhere, I saw teachers give students instructions or orders to follow a rigid structure, to memorise, to cover the syllabus. Even those studying in a creative field had teachers who would promote and indoctrinate a particular pattern of thinking or school of thought. This basically means that you are thinking other people’s thoughts and are being conditioned in someone else’s mental shadow. Continue reading

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Didi. The Street Fighter

MAHASWETA DEVI (JANUARY 14, 1926 – JULY 28, 2016), WRITER AND SOCIAL ACTIVIST

Mahasweta Devi looking at photo exhibition catalogue "Nature's Fury" by Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Mahasweta Devi looking at photo exhibition catalogue “Nature’s Fury” by Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Protocol wasn’t Didi’s thing. Shoitan! (Satan) she would say lovingly. And then grab you and plonk you on her lap. The fact that both Rahnuma and I were far too old, and I was certainly much too heavy, to be sitting on anyone’s lap wasn’t something she worried much about. She didn’t care much for people’s age, and what other people thought, was something that had never bothered her. If you love someone, they sit on your lap. “You have a problem with that?”

Mahasweta Devi (Didi – elder sister – to all of us) had been a giant of a figure in South Asian literature for as far back as I can remember. Jhansir Rani (The Queen of Jhansi, 1956), Hajar Churashir Maa (Mother of 1084, 1975) and Aranyer Adhikar (The Occupation of the Forest, 1977) her powerful novel about the Santal uprising were what we knew this celebrated writer and activist by. That she was a tease and loved to sing, and didn’t mind the odd practical joke, was a side to her that had remained private. What should have been apparent was the rebel in her; her uncompromising stand for the oppressed, and her clear position as to which side of the fence she belonged. Continue reading

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The Empty Doorway

We chose not to be photographed. His broad smile was somewhat subdued, though the impishness of his chuckle still remained. The big hug didn’t work out. Even in the generous light through the large open window, a frail Kiarostami with tubes wasn’t how we wanted him depicted. He had cancer, and the surgery had gone wrong. My young friend Mansour Kiaei had accompanied me and had only met the great man for the first time. He wanted to photograph the two of us. We declined, saving the moment, for when Abbas would be better, and more the Abbas, as I had known him.

Abbas Kiarostami Untitled 1978 Ð 2003, from a series of 32 photographs, 122 x 93 cm.
Abbas Kiarostami Untitled 1978 Ð 2003, from a series of 32 photographs, 122 x 93 cm.

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Runs in the Family

New findings about schizophrenia rekindle old questions about genes and identity.

In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew—the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a “lunatic home,” as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day.

My father has never accepted Moni’s diagnosis. Over the years, he has waged a lonely campaign against the psychiatrists charged with his nephew’s care, hoping to convince them that their diagnosis was a colossal error, or that Moni’s broken psyche would somehow mend itself. He has visited the institution in Calcutta twice—once without warning, hoping to see a transformed Moni, living a secretly normal life behind the barred gates. But there was more than just avuncular love at stake for him in these visits. Moni is not the only member of the family with mental illness. Two of my father’s four brothers suffered from various unravellings of the mind. Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself. Continue reading

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New Developments: How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

How a photography course in Dhaka is challenging religious and artistic prejudices

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series ‘Railway Longings’, 2011–15)

Rasel Chowdhury, winner of the 3rd Samdani Art Award, People on low incomes living in slums beside the railway station at Khilgaon, Kamalapur, Dhaka, 2012, (from the series ‘Railway Longings’, 2011–15). Courtesy the artist

I just got back from the third Dhaka Art Summit (DAS) in the Bangladeshi capital. DAS is the brainchild of Nadia and Rajeeb Samdani, a young collector couple based in the city; it’s not a biennial, nor an art fair or a festival, but an intense four-day summit. For it’s third edition, the Chief Curator of DAS, Mumbai-based Diana Campbell Betancourt, decided not to focus on a particular theme per se but on the South Asia region as a whole, which in itself is a contradictory concept. (What exactly is South Asia? Is Australia a part of it? Sri Lanka? Iran?) She engaged several curators, including me; I was invited to organize an exhibition for the Samdani Art Award, which is given to a Bangladeshi artist between the ages of 20 and 40. Back in October 2015, I had spent a week in Dhaka meeting the 20 artists who had been shortlisted for this award by Aaron Cezar, director of the London-based Delfina Foundation. From my very first conversation with the artists, I sensed that we were at the beginning of an extremely interesting week.

I learned a lot about Bangladesh – the local scene, art education, religion and why, for instance, art­works about love do matter. Some artists I met mentioned that their partner was either Hindu or Muslim and that they could not tell their respective families. As the week went on, I became increasingly enthusiastic about the obvious sense of urgency with which all of the nominated artists work: Bangladesh is rapidly changing on all levels, and these artists are all embracing the challenge to get involved, to have their voices heard and to find appropriate forms of expression for that.

This seemed particularly true for many of the photographers on the shortlist. As it turned out, they all came from a single school: Dhaka’s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute. Set up in 1998 by the Bangladeshi photographer, writer, curator and activist Shahidul Alam, this private school has been dedicated to documentary photography and reportage from the beginning. Located in the central Dhanmondi/Panthapath area of Dhaka, it is a small institute for about 90 students who follow the three-year professional programme, and for about 600 students enrolled in the short, one-semester course. Initially funded by international organisations, Pathshala now is entirely supported through tuition fees. (Though relatively modest at US$460 per semester for the professional programme, inevitably, as in Europe or the US, students are likely to come from more affluent backgrounds, while there are scholarships allowing five students per year to study for free.) Continue reading

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Photography in Bangladesh: a medium on the move

Fêted internationally, the country’s photographers have struggled for status at home. Could that be about to change?

Water reservoir is for the Komolapur Railway station. It’s the main station in Bangladesh. Dhaka.

From the series ‘Railway Longings’ (2011-2015) by Rasel Chowdhury

The eerie moonscape of Munem Wasif’s new photographic series, “Land of Undefined Territory”, appears empty. On closer inspection, it reveals the scars of industrial activity, from vehicle tracks to stone crushing. The sense of menace and alienation is compounded by a three-channel video with a grating soundtrack.

These digital black-and-white shots were taken along an indefinite border between Bangladesh and India — disputed land that is now home to unregulated mining but which also soaked up the blood of past upheavals, from the first, temporary partition of Bengal under the viceroy in 1905, to Partition in 1947 and the Liberation war of 1971. Ostensible documentary veers into questioning in Wasif’s deeply unsettling yet distanced probing of history, territory, ownership and exploitation. Continue reading

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