The Invisible Kabuliwala
‘Do the Kabuliwalas still live in Kolkata?’
‘We don’t see them anymore.’
When we began working on this photography project, these were some the questions and comments we faced from the inhabitants of the city of Kolkata.
Tagore’s own description of the Kabuliwala had left a typical image in the mind of its readers - a tall hefty man attired in the traditional Afghan shalwar and long kurta. In 2012, when we first set foot in Kolkata, we too carried the same image in our mind.
I came to Kolkata from a small town in West Bengal named Barddhaman. Living in the most cosmopolitan part of the city, Park Circus, I was exposed to an extraordinary array of communities. At the time, there were Bengali and non-Bengali Hindus; Bengali and non-Bengali Muslims; Anglo-Indian neighbours, Chinese families, Baghdadi Jews, Parsis, Armenians – all from different economic strata, ranging from the working and middle class to the moderately affluent and overtly rich. As I continued to live and work in Kolkata over the next two decades, I began to notice how the city was becoming homogenised and losing its diversity. The smaller communities which had helped build Kolkata were feeling the societal constraints as their distinctiveness were gradually fading away. I felt the need to capture the stories of one such community in this project. For me, it was an opportunity to capture at least one slice of the diversity of this city that it was losing fast.
Being displaced from Afghanistan at a very young age, I always felt there was an abrupt disconnection with my roots and hence, a lasting sense of loss. Throughout my life, I’ve been drawn to the themes of identity and belonging. When the idea of the Kabuliwala emerged in my mind, I wondered how this particular community had held on to, if at all, its identity, and culture. I was curious to know but also circumspect that as an Afghan with such close ties to the themes of the story, I may lose objectivity and sight of what I should capture. Therefore, it was imperative that I collaborate with Nazes because he had lived in Kolkata, the city where the Kabuliwalas resided. By capturing their story through a Bengali and an Afghan perspective meant that we each brought a very different bearing and gaze to the project as a whole.
During our first encounter with the community, we realised that they kept a dual existence – one inside their home and one outside. In their abode, they’d wear their traditional attire and follow the typical customs observed in Afghanistan – the habit of sitting on the carpet and not on sofas or chairs, sharing a communal meal from the same platter, using the spittoons and drinking endless cups of green tea.
However, when they stepped out and about with their work of business, they appeared like any other individual living in Kolkata, wearing trousers or jeans and shirts. Only on special occasions like Eid or Nowruz did the two distinct worlds merge together.
For the inhabitants of Kolkata, this new avatar does not match with the image of the Kabuliwala ingrained in their consciousness. Thus, they often wonder if the Tagore’s Kabuliwala still live in the city. This photographic journey undertaken by us is possibly the first attempt to document the Afghan community or the Kabuliwalas of Kolkata. As a close-knit community, the Kabuliwalas continue to maintain an insular existence thus creating a mystery about them.
From the early days of photography until the second half of the twentieth century, most photographs captured of Afghanistan and its people were taken by the British, Indians or other western travellers. The photographs captured either the stunning beauty of the landscape or where portraits of the ‘noble savage’ - local tribes people in exotic attires and studio settings, often performing their customs and rituals. In the last thirty years, however, circumstances in Afghanistan have produced a cache of memorable images that encapsulate a life of Afghan people amidst war and conflict. Unlike the old and present narratives told of Afghanistan, the story of the Kabuliwala is distinct in nature. It is neither about the exotic ‘other’ and nor about the war or its impact. It is a story of a community in a distant land and not of a nation and its people. We, therefore, felt that the story deserved to be told in its own territory and space.
Photo: Kabuliwalas dancing to the Attan, a traditional dance said to be one of the oldest forms of Pashtun pagan dance. Usually performed with a double-headed barrel drum, the dance is performed during festivities and cultural celebrations. Dancers form a circular path and move to the rhythm of the beat with the routine getting faster. The Attan is also the national dance of Afghanistan.
21 century Kabuliwala
While researching the community in Kolkata we realised that it is possibly one of the oldest settled Afghan community in the Sub-continent in modern times. It is likely they started coming to Kolkata from the middle of the nineteenth century and the connection never severed. By the end of the century, these Kabuliwalas became an integral part of the city, perhaps a reason why Rabindranath Tagore could pen the story in 1892.
The early Kabuliwalas’ business ventures were mostly hawking dry fruit and asafoetida grown in Afghanistan and selling warm shawls. They would visit middle class Bengali neighbourhoods selling their merchandise that they brought in Afghanistan. This continued until the 1970s after which political instability and war in Afghanistan disrupted their usual trades. Also the large joint family system in Kolkata started to change around the same time with the advent of apartments. The Kabuliwalas, thus, disappeared from the views of the city until our project created interest in them.
Although the Kabuliwalas consider Kolkata their ‘real home’ because it has provided them with shelter and livelihood, many often talk about visiting Afghanistan, their distant and often imagined home. They cling onto mementos that had been passed on from earlier generations. Stuck in a vacuum of space between these two worlds, the Kabuliwalas of Kolkata are as Afghan as Indian. For the Bengalis, though, the men with piercing eyes and rugged face will always remain Mini’s Kabuliwala.
In the midst of longing and belonging, they carry on with their daily lives, filled with tensions between dreams and realities - of merging, exclusion and exile - until they are finally laid to rest in Kolkata, their ‘real home’.