September 5, 2010

Sundaram Tagore is a New York-based art historian and gallerist. A descendant of the influential poet and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, he promotes East-West dialogues through his contributions to numerous exhibitions as well as his eponymous galleries and their multicultural and multidisciplinary events. A candidate for a Doctorate of Philosophy from Oxford University, Tagore writes for numerous art publications. He was previously a director at Pace Wildenstein in New York. He has advised and worked with many international organizations including The Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice, Italy; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the United Nations. In 1999, he was nominated by Avenue magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential Asian Americans in the United States. He has served as a juror for the 2002 UNESCO Design 21 competition and the Asian American Arts Center in New York. Recently, he was profiled on CNN International’s Talk Asia.  – bio from Sundaram Tagore Gallery website


cB: What was the inspiration behind starting your own gallery? Was it something that you have always wanted to do or was it a gradual realization? 

ST: I opened the gallery in 1999 with the idea of bringing together a global community of artists and galvanizing intercultural dialogue. Although I represent artists from a wide range of countries such as Korea, Israel, Holland, Mexico, India and the United States, they are all linked by a similar philosophical view. Each artist shares a deep concern to harness art for the betterment of society. Moreover, each of these artists creates work for humanist purposes. Theirs is a quest for aesthetic beauty and spirituality. This has been a guiding force that has allowed me to bring together artists from such disparate places and create a cohesive vision for the gallery. 

I believe that art and culture are of paramount importance to life. Art and culture have the power to bring people together, which is why I formed this gallery based on intercultural dialogue. 

cB: I read somewhere that your father would take the family on month-long adventure trips all over India. What was it like growing up in such a family environment? 

ST: Just about every single day was crazy during my childhood. Indian homes have this tradition of an open house. Starting from 8 to 9 o’clock people would gather at houses to drink until two in the morning. Each evening artists, writers, intellectuals, poets would flood into our home. In Bengali they called this “adda” or discussion. As a child, it was both exciting and confusing. While we were growing up the old world Indian aristocratic structure was collapsing and new wealth was being created. The old aristocracy lived for culture but that lifestyle was disappearing before my eyes. We led a very nomadic life continuously travelling not just to cosmopolitan centers but also to remote villages. My father was a true Bohemian. 

[above image: Sundaram Tagore at the opening reception of ‘New Creative Constructs’ at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Chelsea, NY]

cB: What do you think of the current art scene in both the Bengals? Any Bengali/Bangladeshi artist whose work you particularly admire? 

ST: There is a great deal of talent emerging both from Bengal and Bangladesh. In fact I am thinking about having a historical exhibition of Bangladeshi art but it takes some to identify the conceptual basis of the show as well as the most suitable curator who has the academic background to pull it together. It will be in the same line of exhibitions that we have done in the past.

cB: One of your visions for your art gallery is to facilitate spiritual, aesthetic dialogues. Do you see any change among the younger generation in that they are trying to lead more balanced lives and giving art more importance than their parents? (specifically among the desi youths..) 

ST: Yes I believe that this is true. Art is a necessity. Art is very much like a diet that sustains one’s spiritual and aesthetic well being. It is not to be slighted that we as human beings have always created art since the pre-historic era. Art has existed for 40,000 years. We have a basic need to express ourselves in visual terms. It fulfills the realm of the imagination. The purpose of art is to inspire the soul, to make us think, and help us look at the world in new ways. 

Today art has become an integral part of the economy and society has recognized the important role of aesthetics. Look at the Bilbao effect in Spain for instance. A single museum revived the economic standing of a city in front of a world audience. Prior to Bilbao’s museum, no one talked about that region of Spain. Today the cosmopolitan world visits Bilbao purely because of the museum. Art has allowed them to regenerate the economic side of the story. Particularly in contemporary democratic societies, people are realizing that art is a cohesive factor that can bring together people from many different levels.

[above image: Guests at the opening reception of ‘New Creative Constructs’ at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Chelsea, NY]

cB: You also have a gallery in Hong Kong. How has Asians responded to western art? Earlier art had predominantly traveled in one direction, from East to West – how has that changed in recent years as more Asians get access to western art? 

ST: Asian buyers are playing an increasing role in the international art market particularly as they travel and create relationships overseas. As Asians continue to invest in properties and businesses abroad they are opening up to buy Western art as well as growing their Asian collections. I believe this will continue to a point where people will soon collect art based solely on aesthetics rather than the nationality of the artist. Cosmopolitanism is truly extending into the art world. 

cB: What role can the younger generation play in cross-cultural exchanges especially in today’s fast-paced, hi-tech world? 

ST: The younger generation are facing a globalized world that is more flattened and highly digitalized both in the positive and negative sense. There is also an economic brunt which they have to shoulder from the recent economic crisis. Hence their activities and decisions will either enable them to build a sustainable society or destroy it. I believe that the socially conscious entrepreneurs in our society will play an increasingly leading role in determining the kind of world we create and the kind of society we build. Within that context, art will come to play a progressively important role both offering a critique and serving a celebratory function. 

[above image: ‘Fragile-Dragon’ by Kim Joon, part of ‘New Creative Constructs’ at the Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Chelsea, NY]

cB: And how can young members of the Bengali diaspora help to bring mainstream awareness to their cultural heritage? 

ST: First and foremost I suggest they create a standard of high aesthetic value, whether they are talking about poetry, literature or compositional art. It is important to present artistic ventures or events with serious intellectual and spiritual thought behind them in a highly cohesive manner. And I am not talking about money, I am talking about ideas. 

cB: Some future projects / plans for Sundaram Tagore Art Gallery that you are extremely excited about… 

ST: I am very excited about our film making ventures. The first film is about an Indian artist and the Indian diaspora. The second film will focus on the Louis Kahn parliamentary complex in Bangladesh. In fact I have already had meetings with government agencies who are highly supportive of the second project.

I am including a short synopsis of the first film below for your reference: 

Natvar Bhavsar The Poetics of Color

A Film by Sundaram Tagore

This documentary explores the life and work of the painter Natvar Bhavsar. Born in Gujarat in 1934, Bhavsar settled in New York City, the very nerve center of the art world, in the mid-1960s where he still lives and works. The central theme of the film is the multicultural nature of Bhavsar’s work and how that has influenced the trajectory of his career. Although it’s common today for artists to work cross culturally and find critical and commercial acceptance outside their own spheres of origin, Bhavsar was a pioneer who paved the way for subsequent generations of artists. This film is not only a history of one artist’s journey, but a celebration of the Asian diasporic community and its contribution to American contemporary art.

Thank you Sundaram for taking the time to join us for inConversation with creativeBangladesh! 

For more information on the Sundaram Tagore Gallery, please visit their website here.


photos: Labiba Ali for creativeBangladesh


July 1, 2009

Shehzad Noorani has worked as a freelance documentary photographer since 1987. His special focus is people who live on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. He has covered major crises resulting from wars and natural calamities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh. Other assignments for agencies such as UNICEF have taken him to more than thirty countries. Noorani has also edited photographs for numerous publications. His work has appeared in Geo, Newsweek, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and The British Journal of Photography and has been exhibited widely around the world. For Daughters of Darkness, his project on the lives of commercial sex workers, he received the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award in 2000. His project, Children of Black Dust, was featured in the book ‘What Matters’ by David Elliot Cohen.

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]

cB:  Welcome back! Today we are continuing our conversation with Shehzad Noorani. Shehzad Bhai – reading the stories behind some of your photographs made me very emotional, like the story of child labors in ‘Children of Black Dust’ – how do you control your emotions at such times? While on assignment, do you get very upset, depressed at the unfairness of why so many people live in poverty when there is all this wealth in this world or do you keep your mind very focused on the job, as it needs to get done and not allow for distractions.

SN:  Both at the same time. Sometimes I do get upset. I guess if I didn’t get emotional, I would not be shooting what I shoot. However,  usually I am not trying to show injustice and have ‘lets change the world’ attitude. It’s difficult to express what I feel in words. Let me try. I have been poor myself, a street child, and worked as a child labour when I was young. Odd as it may sound, I remember that experience fondly and I think those experiences have greatly contributed to make me whoever I may be today. Depending on the degree of poverty, may be it’s not all that bad to be poor. It’s a relative term. I think everyone in the world should some how be able to at least get enough food to survive, some shelter, cover and medical assistance if and when they need. I do believe it’s terrible when your child has to go to sleep hungry and you are not able to do anything about it. Rich or poor, it really hurts deep inside when your child is sick and worst when you are not even able to take your child to a doctor or provide any kind of medication. Some of these things are supposed to be ensured by the governments, and in developed countries they do. In developing countries, our politicians are so bloody corrupt, they treat their limited time on power seats as a last opportunity to make money and never do anything for their people. I feel helpless and also feel responsible at the same time to somehow share with the haves, more privileged, people just like myself, what I see. If not to change anything, at least to make them realize that often the luxuries we have are at the expense of thousands of people we sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly exploit. I cannot reach the damn politicians, but I often make it to their children. I don’t mind those corrupt politicians not seeing it. It would not make any difference anyway. They don’t care. But I believe their children would.

Having said all this, I must admit, this is just my anger. When I am shooting, I may feel angry, but at that time my mind is simply focused on what is going on in front of my eyes. I am not shocked with poverty or poor people. I think being one of them at one point in my life and later witnessing it all the time as part of my work, almost daily, has taken away the shock value. Just like a surgeon who does not get shocked to see blood and continues to operate, I shoot, knowing exactly what is wrong and not in place. Difference between me and that surgeon is I guess that I just don’t know how to fix it.

[top image: Children of Black Dust, an infant sleeps on a jute bag in a factory where his mother works. bottom image: Children of Black Dust, Hajira laughs standing on the door of a workshop, where she works, with her 3 year old sister Mumtaz in her arms.]

cB:  Have you been able to keep in touch with your subjects? When you visit Bangladesh, do you get a chance to see them? For example, Munni and Noorun Nahar from ‘The River Bleeds Black’ – I wonder where are they now.

SN:  I do. Often I go back, meet them, talk to them and give them their pictures, like with Noorun Nihar whom I met several times. Sometimes they are simply lost, like Munni. I went back to the slum she used to live and looked for her for days, but just could not find her. Recently I have raised some funds to try to help some of these children I photographed including those in ‘Children of Black Dust. Just a couple of days ago I sent my younger brother, who now lives in Dhaka, to try to locate her, but even he could not find her. I will not be surprised if I find her in a brothel somewhere in Bangladesh or even in India. Life sucks.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, 9 year old Munni searches for metal in a pile of garbage on the Buriganga banks. bottom image: River Bleeds Black, Munni has 3 sisters and one brother. Her father passed away and her mother struggles to keep the family going. She says, ‘Only I know how I manage to feed my children. School? Education is not for poor people like us.]

cB:  Your assignments have taken you all over the world, over 30 countries in Asia, Africa, Middle East [and, I am supremely jealous of all your travels!]. Which country has the fondest memory and which country was the most photogenic [of course, besides Bangladesh – we all agree it is the most beautiful place on earth!].

SN:  I think Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, Nepal, India and Pakistan have to be on the top, that is of course after Bangladesh. It would be extremely difficult, but if I have to pick one country to live, I think I would choose Myanmar. Perhaps because Myanmar truly sandwiched between South Asia and South East Asia have cultures from both to offer in one single country. Also, I think due to the fact that it has been sort of closed from rest of the world because of the military regime there, parts of Myanmar still remains sort of unpolluted in terms of the affects of globalization and makes you feel as if you are somewhere on the planet earth at least a century ago. Burmese people are truly beautiful, physically, culturally, and spiritually.

[top image: Children of Black Dust, Noorun Nahar, 15 years old, is breaking old batteries.  She had to quit school to work and help the family. bottom image: Children of Black Dust, a woman holds her child blackened by carbon dust. His nose bleeds due to infections caused by exposure to dust and pollution.] 

cB:  One lesson that Bangladesh has taught you or, one memory of Bangladesh that you always carry with you.

SN:  That one can survive with so little and still be grateful and happy. No matter what happens, flood, erosion, cyclones, one can always bounce back and try again.

cB:  Though you spent part of your growing-up years in Karachi, you are very much a Bangladeshi at heart and you are very connected to Bangladesh, as your work shows.  How did that evolve, develop? Did you always feel Bangladeshi, even while living in Karachi?                    

SN:  I am an Ismaili Muslim and for most Ismailis around the world, their spiritual identity comes first even before their race or country. I’d be honest to admit that it was the same for me for many years. Now, I know that I am Bangladeshi and I am proud of it. Having said that, I also know that by race, I am not Bengali and sometimes when I am back in Bangladesh and get treated like a foreigner, I feel very hurt. My family always migrated, first from India to East Pakistan soon after the Independence in 1947, then again I think in 1974 to Pakistan from Bangladesh when I was only eight years old, and then again in 1988 from Pakistan to Bangladesh, when my father just could not take the degree of violence Pakistan was affected with and wanted to come back to his peaceful Bangladesh. I remember that when I was leaving for Bangladesh, my best friend told me not to go and that “it’s a poor country and you will die hungry”. I told him that it may be a poor country, but if you have not seen it, you will never understand its beauty. The soil in Bangladesh is black (meaning wet and fertile) and if you throw a mango pit (core or seed) outside your window,  in a few days you will see it becoming a plant on its own.

I had such beautiful memories of Bangladesh from my childhood and although I lived in Pakistan for about 14 years, I never felt I am anything but a Bangladeshi. Sitting outside our house in Rangpur shinning coins with soil before I hand them out to beggars who used to pass by, or digging for black wet soil to mold toys and climbing big piles of jute fibers behind our house on Station Road are treasured memories. When my father was dying from cancer in USA in 1998 and he knew he had very little time in hand, it was his last wish to go back to Bangladesh, the place he was at home, to die. I think that’s why I always felt hurt when people treated me as a foreigner. At heart I never felt like one but obviously I did look like one physically.

cB:  Thank you very much Shehzad Bhai for taking the time to talk to us about your photography and life experiences. I really enjoyed our adda [Bengali discussion] and hope to see more of your work in the future!

* To view more of SHEHZAD NOORANI’s photographs, you can visit his Flickr Photostream here.

** For an audio slideshow of ‘Children of Black Dust’ narrated by SHEHZAD NOORANI and which was featured in the book, ‘What Matters’, please visit the CNN site here.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, Nawab Ali washes himself using extremely contaminated water from a concrete tank that is used to melt waste leather full of toxic chemicals. middle image: Children of Black Dust, children break used batteries for recycling. As they spend a good part of the day in polluted factories inhaling harmful gasses and particles, they often remain sick. bottom image: River Bleeds Black, children burning garbage and retrieving metal objects for recycling.]

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]


June 28, 2009


Shehzad Noorani has worked as a freelance documentary photographer since 1987. His special focus is people who live on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. He has covered major crises resulting from wars and natural calamities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Iran and Bangladesh. Other assignments for agencies such as UNICEF have taken him to more than thirty countries. Noorani has also edited photographs for numerous publications. His work has appeared in Geo, Newsweek, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian and The British Journal of Photography and has been exhibited widely around the world. For Daughters of Darkness, his project on the lives of commercial sex workers, he received the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography Award in 2000.  His project, Children of Black Dust, was featured in the book ‘What Matters’ by David Elliot Cohen.

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]

cB:  Thank you Shehzad Bhai for sharing your experiences as a photographer with us today. Why don’t we start at the very beginning – what was ‘that first moment’ when you realized you wanted to be a photographer? How old where you and what was your own reaction to that realization?

SN:  Photography was really a tool to get off poverty. When I was in class 7, about 14/15 years old, one of my teachers asked me to take some photographs at school. He handed me a camera and asked me if I can take photographs. One never said ‘No’ to him and out of habit I said ‘Yes Sir’ even though I had no idea how to operate a camera. A few days later the teacher called me to his office and showed me my photographs. He was amazed at the photographs and told me that I had a natural talent for taking pictures. That incident more or less started my photography career. At that time I was working in a garments factory. To subsidize my income I would rent a camera and take photographs of birthday parties and other events. Gradually my photography business started doing well and I built a reputation for myself. Later on I got my big break when I was hired by UNICEF in Bangladesh to work on their assignments.

[image: River Bleeds Black, boats struggle to navigate through the congested waterways of Buriganga.]

cB:  You work mostly in black and white. I, myself, find black and white photographs to be more poetic. Is b/w your preferred medium? What propels you to shoot in b/w?

SN:  Not true anymore. I did a fair bit of work in b/w during film era, now I mainly shoot in colour digital raw images that can be easily converted to b/w, if need be. For instance, my story on the environment, River Bleeds Black, is shot entirely in digital colour, then, converted carefully using a software called Aperture into b/w. Yes, I like b/w because it takes away colours and, thus, makes it less distracting and people are able to focus more on what is happening in the pictures. It is simple, thus, it often helps in telling a story. Poetic, I would not know about that.  I try not to do art at the expense of poverty and people I shoot are mostly poor.

[top image: River Bleeds Black, Bristi cries after being beaten by her mother. bottom image: Daughters of Darkness, a child of a sex worker with clients in the background.]

cB:  Which ‘one personal experience’ has had the most influence on your photography? And, which photograph of yours have moved you the most and why?

SN:  I don’t think I can pin point one personal experience or pictures that move me most down to a few images. I think it is a process. There are hundreds of experiences and literally thousands of pictures. Also, I usually don’t go back and look at my own images too much and admire them. That would make me feel like I am ‘somebody’ and I know I am not. To me they are images of people, some are great images, because everything including light, moment, frame, accident, came together, while some are not so great, but still they are almost ALWAYS images of people. I find it difficult to choose one image over the other, because as I said, I am not an art photographer and do not do art at the cost of people I shoot. I simply document. Sometimes some images turn out to be great and sometimes not. Although I probably know which one worked, but at the same time, almost as a principal, I find it difficult to choose one image over others as ‘my best’. There is so much more to photography than just ‘I am a great photographer and here is my best picture’. It’s a lifestyle and life itself. I feel I sort of float through it and experience whatever comes my way without having much control over what happens in front of me, and when that happens, I just feel lucky to be there.  

Being a photographer certainly allows me to be in places and meet people that may not be possible for others. Often I get to see east, west, north and south of a country in a matter of couple of weeks that even the residents of those countries don’t get to see in a life time. There is much to learn and much to absorb and I feel very privileged to experience that. When you see how great the world is, and there is so much to understand and learn, it simply makes one feel extremely humble.

[top image: Daughters of Darkness, on Eid day Shilpi lies in the arms of her client-boyfriend Sarwar. bottom image: Daughters of Darkness, women attempt to drag a reluctant man into their ramshackle hut.]

cB:  You are passionate about documenting social issues. Your photography story on ‘Daughters of Darkness’ won the Mother Jones International Award in 2000. When working on these sensitive issues, how do you connect with the people and make them feel comfortable in front of the camera. What is your magic trick in making them feel at ease?

SN:  Yes I am passionate about documenting social issues, but I feel I am documenting my own life rather than ‘them’. I do not see much difference between ‘me’ and ‘them’. You will understand better what I am saying in later paragraphs.

 I don’t think there is either any magic or trick that could make people comfortable with you. The only way people eventually accept you and feel comfortable is when they realize that you are just like them. The key to be at home with people is to have genuine respect for them. It’s true that the people I photograph are often economically disadvantaged compared to me, but since I totally believe that it does not necessarily make me better than them in any respect, eventually it gets communicated to them as well. I don’t try to hide anything about myself or pretend that I am just like them. I am not, at least economically I am often much better off, humanly maybe not. I try to be as honest as I can be and give them honest and true answers when they ask me about myself, my family and my intentions. Once they understand that I am being honest with them, respect them as equals, and have a deep interest in them, they treat me equally as well. 

The whole body of work on the Daughters of Darkness happened due to my complete ignorance and genuine interest in understanding what was happening and unfolding in front of my eyes. The lives of people in the brothels that I visited kept unfolding in front of my eyes and, often, in front of my cameras. People often approached and requested me to take their pictures, so there was no question of them being uncomfortable. I guess another reason that you see depth in those pictures is because of the fact that I spent about 13 years on and off in different brothels all over South Asia to shoot the stories. I had no plan, no story line, no fixed purpose or intention, I was just genuinely interested and shot images whenever I felt I had the opportunity to do so. Since it was not really an assignment, there was no hurry or deadline. I did not even know what and why I was doing whatever I was doing. I was just experiencing life and capturing it as it unfolded. One other thing that also worked for me is the fact that I really and genuinely respected those girls and women in the brothel. It felt to me as they were my sisters and mother, thus, there was no question about trying to show anything gross, reality or not.

* To be continued. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday.

[top image: emotions run high among women in Kandupatti brothel, Dhaka. middle image: a commercial sex worker kisses another on the cheek, an unusual display of affection. bottom image: a client kisses a reluctant girl. All 3 images are from Daughters of Darkness.]

[image: all photographs are copyright of SHEHZAD NOORANI]