The art of peeling the eyelids

The first exhibition of a photographer shows the arrival of a major talent and augurs many such future events 

You enter the exhibition hall of Ejaz Gallery to see "First Light" and the first impression is of profound silence and awe. The pictures are huge, some as big as five feet by four, and all are depicting sombre early morning scenes. The hawkers, peddlers, donkey-cart and tonga drivers, people selling animals for their butcher shops, milkmen leaving to distribute their merchandise, and women and children huddled around a stove made of clay bricks are all captured in that liminal moment before the horizon breaks open with the intense orange glow. 

Azhar Sheikh has been photographing the early morning scenes for last twenty-five years and this is his first exhibition at 46. And "First Light" is also the first photographic exhibition at Ejaz Gallery. I ask him when and why he started photographing the early morning eeriness. He says he grew up in Lahore and there were always a lot of things to do before going to school, such as fetching milk for the entire family from the milkman's shop and doing the daily errands. Walking in the streets of Lahore in those silent hours stayed with him. In 1984 or 1985, he started walking around with a camera in the ethereal fog of the winter mornings. It began with black and white scenes of the life waking up and beginning its daily trudge and slowly went through the trajectory of colour, and digital imaging. 

He first thought of exhibiting his photos, he says, when he put them up on his facebook profile and people started commenting. He observed a strange phenomenon. People were not commenting the way they usually do on any social networking site but were writing descriptive and narrative sketches inspired by the pictures. Under some pictures, there were collaborative stories being developed by total strangers from all over the world. One man, from Canada, looked at one picture, of an old man pushing a cart in the early morning dusty light, and he started comparing with the images of the homeless in Canada, especially of a footpath-dwelling, old man pushing his own oxygen cylinder and mask on a trolley. All the stories and comments on facebook were enough to encourage him to exhibit. As the exhibition opened, people started pouring in. Soon the virtual reality was a social reality. The gallery was jam-packed. 

Despite the grim depictions of the urban underbelly, there is something life-affirming about the pictures. The daily grind of the most vulnerable people of the society shows no mercy, no sentimentality and no relief. That is it. Life must be lived. No solace guaranteed. There are no satori moments for the man pushing a pile of second-hand clothes on a cart in a shuttered-down bazaar. And that is what Azhar Skeikh has shown. No exoticisation of the subaltern will do. No patronising smarminess. Nothing. These are unsentimental, unflinching and in-your-face pictures. Take them or leave them. Your choice. And many people have bought them for the glistening walls of their drawing rooms. The charade goes on. Perhaps Azhar Sheikh will also, one day, turn his camera on those who consume the scenes of misery in chic lounges, sipping their bloody maries and pina coladas. That is the comment I want to leave on his facebook to suggest a topic for his next exhibition.

Published in The News on Sunday

dated April 26, 2009