BY MAHESH SHANTARAM
In early February, I woke up to news of a mob attack on a Tanzanian student in Bengaluru. It wasn’t the first case of violence against Africans in India, but this particular incident made me curious about Africans in India, and through them, the truth about racism in our country.
Since that day, I’ve been travelling (Bengaluru, Manipal, Hyderabad, Jaipur, and Jalandhar) to meet African students and learn more about their experiences. As I make friends, I make portraits to preserve that encounter in a way I know best, that speaks to others. A portrait can have the power to make one stop and stare (which anyway is a national pastime) and evoke the viewer’s curiosity about the life and condition of the subject.
As a community, I have discovered that foreign students are among the most vulnerable. They are part of a loosely regulated industry which brings with it certain insecurities and puts them at the mercy of the system. These students, leaders of tomorrow’s Africa, look at India as a Mecca for higher education. College years are typically the best of our lives—full of innocence, adventure, experimentation. But because of their skin colour and our legendary prejudice, the African student’s life in India resembles a prison sentence. Soon, they take on additional roles: victim, survivor, activist, revolutionary.
When I started this project, it was a simple matter of meeting Africans. Over the months, conversations with Africans have broadened and deepened my perspective. Through this project—portraits and accompanying stories—I want to raise awareness of how racism and xenophobia are a waste of human potential. I hope to draw national attention to the urgent matter of racial discrimination in India
Africans are accustomed to meeting Indians in hostile spaces—police stations, TV studios, and hospitals—whenever there is an “incident”. As this work travels across India, it will bring Indians and Africans together for a conversation.
(Mahesh Shantaram is a photographer based in Bengaluru. “The African Portraits” will be shown by Tasveer Gallery in five cities across India.)
The photo story of the October 2016 issue of Fountain Ink.