Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Myriad emotions on the street

Santhosh Rajendran’s ‘Streetalight’ photography exhibition highlights the extreme sights of poverty that is common on streets in India

Photo: An old man in Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of the most striking photos in Santhosh Rajendran's 'Streetalights' exhibition is that of an old man, with a straggly white beard, his forehead creased with deep wrinkles. But it is the eyes, staring into the distance, that grip the viewer. This man has seen the ups and downs, the good and bad, the searing and the ecstatic.

“He is a former hoodlum,” says Santhosh. The old man, who has no family, stays near the St Mary's Church in Thiruvananthapuram. “He had no money to buy food, nor did he have a place to stay, so the local people helped him set up a shop selling cigarettes,” says Santhosh. The photographer spotted him sitting outside and quickly took a snap on his Canon US 550 D.

The exhibition focuses on sights of poverty. There is a picture of two sleeping girls, their buttocks exposed and flies have settled all over their bodies. “We complain all the time that our mosquito coils are not working,” says Santhosh. “And here are these children who are sleeping oblivious to the flies.”

At Kanyakumari, Santhosh spotted a tiny man, with polio-affected legs, who was holding an iron rod, double his height, as a staff on a busy street. A tall sari-clad woman passer-by accentuated the man's shortness. But there is a look of determination on his face. He is clutching a black bag, with photos of Kanykumari sticking out of it.

“He is not blaming destiny for his handicap,” says Santhosh. “Instead, he is working hard, selling photos, to earn a living. In Kerala, if somebody has a disability they will not work. Instead, they will start begging.”

Near the police station at Kanyakumari, Santhosh spotted a mentally challenged woman, with limp legs. Her hair is matted with dust, and so are her clothes. A bearded man, in an equally dishevelled state, has held her up from behind, since she cannot stand on her own. And the begging bowl is prominently held out. “I don’t know whether he is the husband or just a companion,” he says. “But I know that this is love.”

One photo can make you squirm inwardly. It is of a sleeping man, who is lying on a mat, with one foot of his polio-stricken placed next to his head. There are several coins placed next to his body. “I had a feeling criminals were forcing him to do this, because of his freak disability,” says Santhosh.

The photo which tugs at the heart is a boy sitting on a mat and looking up with an air of expectancy. But the shot is only of the look on the boy’s face. “Actually, he is staring at a man who is putting his hand in his pocket to give some money,” says Santhosh.

Another photo shows two young girls begging in front of what seems to be the shutter of a shop, a motorcycle helmet placed incongruously between them. One girl, facing the camera, has a smooth face, but with a worried look in her eyes. “She could easily have been my sister and living in my home,” says Santhosh. “No one would say she is a beggar. They will say she is my sister. She is so beautiful.”

For Santhosh, the aim of these photographs is to sensitise the viewing public. “We share the same air and space but most people ignore these sights,” he says. “Photography is neither an art or a science. It is a medium for social awareness.”

One viewer who is overwhelmed is Angela Sriram, an American black artist, who was visiting Kochi to see her Malayali husband’s relatives. “I am getting goose-bumps looking at these photographs,” she says. “They are moving, intelligent, and textured. These pictures have been taken from the heart. Santhosh has an amazing talent.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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