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Created in Kabul and New Delhi, the photo and text based installation What Remains is intended as a palimpsest of memory and its multitude of cohesive and contradictory facts pertaining to the migration of Afghani Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan to India. It includes photographs taken by me across the city of Kabul; in New Delhi at the Khalsa Diwan Afghan Hindu-Sikh Refugee association and at other public spaces frequented by the community locally; photographs taken by various members of the same community on their own visits back to Afghanistan over the years, and onto which are inscribed fragments from conversations I had with the refugees; and finally texts by young people from writing workshops conducted at the English classes run by the Khalsa Diwan school in Tilak Nagar (Delhi), in which they express what the idea of Afghanistan means to them.
As an Indian citizen, I was in Kabul in 2007, when I was invited to conduct a workshop with local photographers. The workshop was about ‘documenting the city’. We tried to look at different histories that lay within contemporary Kabul, and to consider what might be alternate ways of photographing them. We hoped to shift focus away from the dominant discourse of the ongoing war and allied destruction. In the course of our week together, we visited and photographed in neighborhoods as diverse as the Russian built neighborhoods – which seemed oddly akin to Delhi Development Authority (government) construction in Delhi; Shar-e-Naw which is literally New Town; vast guarded homes in Wazir Akbar Khan; Shahrak-e-Aria, a growing forest of skyscrapers; a sea of graves which also functioned as a kind of weekend picnic site at Karte Sakhi; Karte Parwan, where many of the Afghani-Indians lived; the ancient bird market at Ka Furushi; grand Dar-ul-Aman palace that now lay abandoned in Homer Simpson graffiti marked ruins... and so on. Students also photographed independently, often using a vocabulary of quotidian life. One day when I tried to make a catalog of the subject matter in the prints brought into class, one of the student’s pictures read thus: writing on walls and trees, university students, government officials, road obstacles, vehicles, a living room, typewriters, tea break, dishes, shoes, garbage, telephone booths, a parking lot, minarets on a school, a barbershop, the kitchen, washing basins and the interior of an NGO office.
On my return to Delhi, I accidentally met an Afghani Sikh driver when I was traveling in his rickshaw and started to converse with him in Punjabi. His own Punjabi was heavily accented and laced with Farsi. When I asked where he was from he said he had left Afghanistan for Delhi in the seventies. The move was not of his choosing, and he spoke of that lost world in halcyon terms – of a world of cool mountain air, abundant fruit trees, terraced lakes and a time when Bamiyan was truly a place of shining light. He also made me aware of the Indo-Afghani community in Delhi, some of whom were running a refugee association in Tilak Nagar. When I was next in the neighborhood, I decided to go by their center. And when I stopped to ask for directions, I was directed to the place of the ‘Kabulis’. I found an office that felt oddly reminiscent of Kabul: old men sitting around frayed carpets speaking in Farsi, Pashto and Dari, drinking green tea.
Sikhs and Hindus have been living in Afghanistan since at least the 19th century, possibly earlier. By their own account, they traveled there in waves of migration: during Ranjit Singh’s rule; during the Anglo-Afghan wars, when there were Sikhs and Hindus in the British army; and later, post-partition, when some of those in Pakistan who were closer to the Afghani border moved there instead of India. Perhaps the first Afghani Sikhs were locals who converted to the religion when Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh faith, first visited Afghanistan around 1520.
Starting in 1979, when the Communists took over Kabul, many fled the country. More followed as the situation in Afghanistan gradually deteriorated: after Hindu extremists destroyed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and reprisals were feared; then after the beheading of President Najibullah and the subsequent rise of the Taliban; and post the September 11th terrorist attacks. Before 1992, there were apparently over 50,000 Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan, based mostly in the towns of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Ghazni and Khost. Today that number lies at approximately 2,000. The Hindu and Sikh communities owned their own homes, shops and gardens, underwent military training like other citizens, yet also learned Punjabi in school, and after death and cremation, family members would bring a small part of their ashes for immersion in Punjab.
Following their migration from Kabul, many of those who came to India, who lacked the financial resources to move to Europe, the U.K. or elsewhere in the West, now live in the West Delhi neighborhood of Tilak Nagar. They chose this neighborhood partly because after the 1984 pogrom in New Delhi, in which more than 3000 Sikhs were brutally massacred following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, they feared being a vulnerable minority once again. Tilak Nagar is predominantly Sikh. In Afghanistan, Hindus and Sikhs are no longer mentioned in the Afghani constitution as they once were, yet a large section of people in Delhi still await Indian citizenship, the application for which entails excessive fees and time. As one worn down refugee said to me, “There they say you are Indian, here they say you are Afghani”.
Across the world today, countless individuals must make titanic journeys, from the village to the city, from the country of their birth to others far away. Some do so of their own volition, yet others are set upon a new course by the economic, political and cultural exigencies of history, which stamp themselves irrevocably on the lives of ordinary people for generations to come. The idea of “home” becomes a fragile and unstable territory, one that may live only in one’s mind or heart. Whole lives, ways of being - and intimate histories - that have been painstakingly created over generations must be abandoned in a moment. Then, what do we take and what do we leave behind? What continues to live in and around us, or in our children? Who were we there and who do we become here, and as we go on, what remains?
Gauri Gill is a photographer based in New Delhi. Gill’s practice is complex because it contains several, seemingly discreet lines of pursuit. These include her long-term study of marginalized communities in Rajasthan (Notes from the Desert), including a series of portraits of adolescent girls, which was recently published as a book entitled Balika Mela by Edition Patrick Frey. She has also explored issues around migrancy, dislocation and memory (The Americans, Rememory, What Remains). Working in both black and white and color, Gill addresses the twinned Indian identity markers of class and community as determinants of mobility and social behavior. In her work there is empathy, surprise, subversive humor, and a human concern over issues of survival.