SOAS University of London

From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity

From Kabul to Kolkata
A photography exhibition by Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz

Date: 11 October 2018Time: 10:30 AM

Finishes: 15 December 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Exhibition Rooms

Type of Event: Exhibition

Afghans have travelled to India for centuries but it was in 1892 that they were given a romantic, and lasting identity. This link was set into history when India’s most famous modern poet and one of its greatest cultural icons, Rabindranath Tagore, penned his short story about the Kabuliwala or man from Kabul. 

Inspired by the story, Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz, two journalists cum photographers, embarked on a 3-year-long project to tell the story of a century of social transformations among the Afghan community in Kolkata. The two photographers have captured the stories of this secluded and little-known settlement in the present time through documentary photography. 

The exhibition concerns a specific intra-Asian connection between Afghans and Indians that highlights larger historical patterns of trans-Asian migration, cultural resilience and transformation, and shifting senses of self, community and home. 

This is possibly the first attempt to document the Afghan community or the ‘Kabuliwalas’ of Kolkata. It can be estimated that the community of nearly 5,000 families of first, second and third generations possibly started settling in Kolkata, the then capital of British India from around the middle of the nineteenth century to look for a livelihood. They peddled produces from their country, namely dry fruit, hing [asafoetida] and shawls amongst the middle-class Indian households. 

Tagore's story, which has been translated and adapted for cinema and stage, tells the story of a tall, hefty dry fruit-seller who is reminded of the daughter he left behind in Afghanistan when he is befriended by a young Bengali girl. With translations in many Indian and foreign languages, the Kabuliwala has taken on a life of its own. 

While until a few decades ago, real Kabuliwalas were a common sight on the streets of Kolkata, as in most cities of north and central India, today stereotypes and standard attributes have formed an ambiguous image of these people. 

Moska Najib, an Afghan by origin but living in India for most of her life, says, ‘Being away from my homeland, I’ve been always drawn to the themes of identity and new belonging. This inspired me to photograph one of the oldest settled Afghan communities in India in modern times.” 

Ms. Najib hopes that the photographs on display will allow viewers to experience the tension between preserving an identity and rebuilding a home in a new space. 

‘I wanted to explore how the community has held onto its culture and identity for over a century. And by understanding their ways of connection, I too wanted to connect with my own country – Afghanistan.’ 

Nazes Afroz, an Indian journalist from Kolkata, has brought a different perspective in the body of work. He says, ‘The city of Kolkata had had amazing diversity and it had made me what I am today. But for the few decades, I felt that this diversity was fading fast, which was disturbing me. So, by doing this project, I had an opportunity to capture at least one slice of the diversity of this city and in a way it is a tribute to Kolkata.’ 

The series will connect viewers to the themes of human bonding and touch on the issues of loss of identity and a new sense of belonging. 

About the photographers: 

Moska Najib, has been taking photographs for several years and her photos have appeared on numerous publications, including the BBC News website. Born in Afghanistan, Moska has lived in India, and graduated with a degree in Journalism. She has worked for the BBC as a producer and correspondent, travelling extensively to many parts of South Asia reporting through film and photography. In the late 80’s, Moska captured her first photo on her mom’s Polaroid camera. She’s interested in subjects that interpret her view of the world. 

Nazes Afroz, a print and a broadcast journalist from Kolkata, has been a keen photographer for almost three decades. He started working for Aajkaal, a newspaper in Kolkata before moving on to the BBC World Service in London where he lived for nearly fifteen years. Nazes has been documenting communities and people through his photographs, which have appeared in various publications and on the BBC and Al-Jazeera websites. He is passionate about exploring new places and people and capturing them through his lens.