A taste of a new project that I started to work on this year about the mental health crisis in Delhi is showcased by my agency Panos here.
The poor have fallen out of the narrative of modern India. Delhi, the nation’s capital, has been transformed into a vibrant, wealthy metropolis. But where extremes of wealth tread, illness and despair follow, and Delhi is today in the grip of a mental health crisis.
An estimated 20 million Indians suffer from serious mental disorders, many of them hidden from public view by their families. Delhi is a city of migrants and every day thousands more arrive to try to escape the poverty of the village. Many will remain homeless, divorced from the traditional family structure and culture. Delhi’s army of homeless is conservatively estimated to number around 100,000 people. Mental illness in this group is treated either by violence from the rest of the community or traditional ‘quack’ or faith healers. Delhi has had a traumatic history. The city was destroyed by the British in 1857, by Partition nearly a century later and riven by anti-Sikh violence in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s murder. It seems to me that Delhi has lost a great deal of its culture and sense of itself; a dangerous thing to lose. A psychiatrist might contend that by its rampant consumerism it is trying to ‘feed itself’ an identity.
Nimesh Desai, head of psychiatry at the New Delhi-based Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences, estimates that India has fewer than 4,000 psychiatrists, and even fewer general mental health professionals. ‘The lack of psychiatrists is bad and the shortage of psychologists, social workers and councellors is even more alarming,’ Desai told me. ‘It meets about five to seven percent of the projected need.’ Desai has however attempted a solution. After eight years of intense lobbying, his team have started to conduct weekly open air surgeries for the mentally ill homeless in Old Delhi. He is accompanied by a High Court judge who assesses each patient to decide whether or not Desai can inject them with anti-psychotic drugs. On rare occasions he sections them to his mental hospital in the east of the city.
So, for the second time in a few days I find myself writing about Pakistani militant attacks designed to destabilse religious harmony. On Thursday night, at least 42 people were killed and hundreds wounded when two suicide bombers attacked a the famous Data Ganj Baksh Sufi shrine in Lahore. The Lahore commissioner, Khusro Pervaiz, blamed the attack on a “conspiracy in which locals are being used” – a euphemism often used to point the finger at neighbouring India. A dangerous remark that even if true does nothing to answer the charge that Pakistan is actually at war with itself. The so-called Pakistani Taleban funded by Wahabi and other conservative sects (the same groups conveniently used by the Pakistani army in the 1990s to attack Indian troops in Kashmir) are the likely culprits for this and the recent attack on the Ahmadiyya community. Despite what fanatics in both Pakistan and the West would have us believe, the dominant tradition within Pakistani society is a tolerant, peaceful Sufistic based Islam. Wherever I have travelled within the Islamic world it is the presence of Sufis that has reassured me and added to my knowledge of religion. Sufism – a mystical, internalised form of Islamic worship that centres on love and prayer and charity seems to spring up to defend Islam when repression threatens. I have met many Sufis – often practising in secret – and my admiration of their practice is matched only by my hope that this will be the last outrage against all people who seek only to practice their religion peacefully as they see fit.
I’ve never worked in the Data Ganj Baksh shrine but here are some other images linked by ‘Sufism’ from my archive:
Some years ago I travelled to Pakistan to make a set of images about religious persecution. I lasted only a few days – for the first time in my career, I left a story because I honestly felt that my presence was putting lives at risk.
I had been invited to Rabwah, the spiritual home of the Ahmadiyya community, a peaceful minority Islamic movement that questions the finality of the Prophet Mohammed. Pakistan is the only country to classify Ahmadiyya’s as non-Muslims.
In 1984 General Zia issued Ordinace XX supposedly to prevent “anti-Islamic activities”. It forbids Ahmadiyya’s to call themselves Muslims, call their places of worship mosques and worship publicly. It forbids them from quoting from the Koran, preaching in public, seeking converts, or producing, publishing, and disseminating their religious materials. To gain a passport, all Pakistanis must declare themselves non-Ahmadiyyas.
The repression is of course a smokescreen to hide Pakistan’s myriad social and political problems and the Ahmaidiyyas are a perfect scapegoat. This is not about religion, it’s about state power. As Tariq Ali wrote in the London Review of Books in 2007:
“Back in the heart of Pakistan the most difficult and explosive issue remains social and economic inequality. This is not unrelated to the increase in the number of madrassas. If there were a half-decent state education system, poor families might not feel the need to hand over a son or daughter to the clerics in the hope that at least one child will be clothed, fed and educated. Were there even the semblance of a health system many would be saved from illnesses contracted as a result of fatigue and poverty. No government since 1947 has done much to reduce inequality”.
Ali Dayan Hassan of Human Rights Watch told the BBC the worshippers were “easy targets” for militant Sunni groups who consider the Ahmadis to be infidels. The Pakistani state is in trouble however and Ahmadiyyas are not the only minority to suffer persecution. According to Minority Rights, Baluchis, Hindus, Mohhajirs, Pushtuns, Sindhis and Christians all suffer.
Today, I read with interest an opinion piece in Dawn by Moshin Hamid (an author whose Moth Smoke I read and enjoyed some time ago) called Fear and Silence from which I take the liberty of quoting from at length. I think it elegantly echoes Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous (attributed) quote “First they came for the Jews…”. Hamid says:
“Because the heart of the issue isn’t whether Ahmadis are non-Muslims or not. The heart of the issue is whether Muslims can be silenced by fear.
Because if we can be silenced when it comes to Ahmadis, then we can be silenced when it comes to Shias, we can be silenced when it comes to women, we can be silenced when it comes to dress, we can be silenced when it comes to entertainment, and we can even be silenced when it comes to sitting by ourselves, alone in a room, afraid to think what we think.
That is the point. ”
One can only hope that all people of tolerance and faith will not be silenced.
Three years ago, while working in Tamil Nadu, I came across a story that I determined to return to and photograph.
“What we do here is the work of God and that work is spread through our blood” says Radhakrishna Stapathy.
It is just after dawn and Stapathy squats cross-legged on a wooden block, a small hammer between his palms drawn to his forehead in prayer. In front of him, a large statue, freshly cast to which he will bring life by smoothing its metal through long hours of patient work.
Stapathy is an idol maker, a caster of statues, a master craftsman and one whose lineage can be traced backwards twenty three generations to the time that the great Chola Empire that ruled South India more than seven hundred years ago.
Swamimalai is a sleepy temple town deep in Tamil Nadu. Five hours drive from the bustling noisy city of Chennai (formerly Madras); it has a rhythm of a time that has been. Peasants winnow grain under the wheels of passing trucks and bend low in fields ankle deep in rich soil and bullock pull carts along dirt tracks.
This is the heartland of Tamil Dravidian culture and the landscape is linked organically to its religion with every field, every village, paying homage to a deity. A sacred geography links its towns where great palaces of temples provide, in the eyes of the faithful, a real home for the Gods.
The Stapathy studio, fronted by two (relatively) modern offices, is a dark and cavernous space that ironically resembles a temple itself. Men sit of the floors dressed in stained dhotis, deep in concentration, chipping and finishing statues and icons in the warm air filled with incense and the smell of the damp, cool earth under bare feet.
In the courtyard outside, three men mould clay around perfectly carved wax images that will melt on the introduction of molten metal. This ‘lost wax’ process was described by August Rodin as “the most perfect representation of rhythmic movement in art.”
The art of bronze casting can trace its origins from the Indus Valley civilization reaching its zenith during the Chola period in the Thanjavur delta during the 9th-11th centuries A.D.
At the end of the reign of Rajaraja, the greatest Chola king a magnificent temple was built in his capital, Tanjore. On its completion in 1010, the Cholas had donated 500 tons of gold, jewels and silver as well as sixty bronze images of deities to the new structure.
The temples at Tanjore, Chidambaram and Gangaikondacholisvaram are still dark, mysterious places alive with pilgrims prostrating themselves in cavernous halls before oiled black-stone images of gods and demons eerily lit by camphor lamps. They worship before the most famous incarnation of Shiva – Nataraja who elegantly dances the world into destruction and re-birth.
The Stapathy family were originally stonemasons but were called to Tanjore to learn the new art. It was discovered that that the fine silt from the nearby Kauvery River suited the moulding of the bronzes and the process has not changed since.
“Here is our culture,” says Stapathy and rows of half finished pieces peer from the shadows. All around, wax figures sit cool in great bowls of water: arms, legs, and heads like a battle hospital for Gods. Moulds of countless beings are stacked on dusty shelves around the walls. Later, at his house, across the street, Radakhrishna, now joined by his brother Srikanda, perform a puja at their family shrine honouring their ancestors. “It’s like this,” says Srikanda. “We need no training, a fish doesn’t need lessons of how to live in water: we are born for this work. And the work is good… orders are there and money is there”. Indeed, work is brisk and the brothers’ skills are in demand all across the Indian diaspora. Temples in London, California and Canada want idols crafted in the tradition of their fathers and pay handsomely for the privilege. There are other families that make idols “but” says Radhakhrishna, “none know the Sanskrit, none can make the prayers… we only are keeping the Chola king’s tradition.”
As the afternoon draws on, sweating men carefully pour molten metal into a mould held tight in the earth. Later, in a flurry of steam and almost divine heat, a statue will emerge beneath their hammers onto the workshop floor and, if the prayers have been performed properly, the process will produce an idol. Depending on its size it may take weeks to prepare for its ‘birth’ when its eyes are sculpted and its ‘Jeevan’ or life force will be breathed into it, it will, for a set time (depending on where it ‘lives’ and how faithfully it’s worshipped) become in a real sense, a God.
Dawn again, with the streets quiet, Radhakrishna pulls his skirt around him and steadies himself on his wooden seat. Still for a moment, he takes his chisel and checks his cutting line. He makes an incantation and the room is gently filled with the tap-tapping of a hammer. A noise that echoes across the room, across his family and across generations.
I read yesterday that the World Bank is to lend India $1bn to clean up the Ganges River. The Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted waterways and supports perhaps 400 million people. Despite earlier government promises to make its water drinkable by 1989, it flows with industrial effluence and sewerage. As I wrote previously, a solution to the water crisis is crucial to India’s survival and as Sunita Narain (and others) have argued it needs an Indian solution.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been touched by the magic of this river often over the years. I’ve covered two Kumbh Melas (the enormous religious bathing pilgrimage that takes place four times every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna) and visited the extraordinary Varanasi many times. There is something touching, real and honourable about Indian’s reverence and awe at the Ganges; something that speaks about life and its transitory nature. It’s a beautiful thing to see villagers come hundreds of miles just to bathe in the river and feel its coolness at dawn as they submerge themselves. Humbling and puzzling to see the processions of corpse bearers literally running to the cremation grounds on the ghats in Varanasi to burn a body. I shall never forget my first sight of a body (suicides, children and snake bite victims are swallowed by the river whole) bloated, rolling and turning in the gentle waves of my boat one morning at dawn.