Skip to content

Exhibition Review: “From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity”

Swareena Gurung, MA South Asian Area Studies

In 1892, Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, “The Kabuliwala” introduced to the Indian literary landscape the enduring figure of the peddler from Kabul. Since then, the loving bond between Tagore’s young heroine, Mini and her Kabuliwala has been reprised through translations and cinematic adaptations. The photography exhibition “From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity”, looks at the ‘real’ Kabuliwalas of Kolkata, who, unlike their fictional counterpart, have received little attention.

“It draws inspiration from the literary imagination of Tagore and looks beyond–towards the lived realities of today’s Kabuliwalas and their modes of fashioning a Pashtun identity within the metropolis of Kolkata.”

Over a period of three years, photographers Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz undertook a visual ethnography of the Afghan community in Kolkata, a city that also houses a distinct but dwindling Chinese community amongst others. Today, there are estimated to be around 5,000 Afghan families living there, many of whom are second and third generation residents. Traditionally, Afghans came to India from around the mid-19th century as peddlers and money lenders. The photographs display the seclusion and assimilation of those that stayed on and formed families.

The Brunei Gallery exhibition, having acknowledged its literary precedent in Tagore’s story, first showcases photographs of the Kabuliwalas within their homes and community. Photographs of communal praying and eating in the traditional style of sitting on the floor point to means of preserving the Pashtun culture in their private lives. A portrait of a man longingly holding his mother’s dress from almost half a century ago, communicates the reliving of memories of a past homeland through material objects, as do the presence of old trunks and photographs lining their walls. Beyond the homes, they are also pictured in their workspaces, many having now moved on from earlier occupations such as door-to-door peddling to tailoring and cloth trading. The photographs traverse the everyday sites inhabited by the Kabuliwalas, and in doing so, highlight the dichotomy between the private and the public.

Even as they publicly celebrate Eid at Victoria Memorial which is arguably the most iconic site in Kolkata, and are pictured eating local food and attending a Bengali wedding, the exhibition presents the question: what is home for the Kabuliwalas? As photographs of them holding on to Indian as well as Afghan documents indicate, on the one hand, they share a sense of affiliation with a city that has accepted them but simultaneously fictionalised them. Tagore’s “Kabuliwala”, while being an endearing figure, was an outsider nonetheless and still today, many of the Kabuliwalas, though born in Kolkata, have no citizenship documents. On the other hand, their nostalgia also pulls them towards a homeland which has changed drastically from that of their memories and is now deemed unsafe by some of them.

The photographers have managed to draw attention to a community that had largely only been read about in Tagore’s fiction, and have problematised and exemplified their conditions of living. However, as has been pointed out by viewers of the exhibition and addressed by the photographers themselves, the exhibition only presents a male-centric Pashtun community, and photographs of women are visibly absent. According to Afroz, permission to photograph the women, many of whom are Indian Muslims, was not granted. Spaces within their homes tend to be gendered and most of the photographs were taken in communal living spaces during which time the women were not allowed in. So, while the exhibition probes into the lives of the Kabuliwalas, it is also a very guarded presentation.  

“From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity” is on display at the SOAS Brunei Gallery until the 15th of December 2018.


Photo Credit:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *