"This tower has been given a variety of roles; a landmark for its first time visitors, a resting place for street animals with a junk market to one side whilst a vegetable market on the other…” a participant of the I Am Karachi Travelogues was seen reading out her piece on Karachi’s forgotten Poonabai clock-tower located in the midst of a rich, ethnically diverse spot – Ranchore Line. The patio of the Alliance Francaise was brimming with Karachiites – with kids chasing cats, the elderly engrossed in public readings, next in line participants preparing their last bits – all in the midst of photographs collected from each of the six districts of Karachi by amateur shutterbugs.
Visuals are a universal language, which speak to every caste, creed or ethnicity – and also to those who can’t read.
“Travelogues aren’t something superficial; it’s the experiences that make them up – it could be when a bus breaks down or you fall short on money,” orates Danial Shah, a photographer for the last five years and an instructor at the four weeks long travelogue programme.
The School of Writing (TSW) which partnered with I Am Karachi organised the event that comprised of about 322 participants ranging between 16-22 years who toured around their respective localities, digging untold stories. The month-long venture produced a database of an unseen Karachi that comprises of 70,000 snaps from the city’s Malir, South, East, Central, West and Korangi districts.
Tooba Farooq, the programme coordinator for whom being a part of the project was on a whim, connotes, “Initially when we were dividing it into districts, we didn’t want to segregate, but then the idea of people celebrating their own areas ruled over.”
The concept of travelogues is not a mundane idea in our part of the world. What triggered it? For Mohsin Tejani, the founder and executive director of TSW, the concept had been with him for the last 15 years.
“Writing seemed extremely boring and tedious. After attending a number of training programmes abroad, it was the art of penmanship alone that helped me dig out what was within me – it felt therapeutic,” he opines.
“It’s an investment. Initially you don’t think about the profits for you don’t get returns instantly. Yes, a few I believe have taken advantage of us keeping it free for all, but then I’m sure they have learnt something out of it,” donning a muddy coloured kurta, Tejani voices.
Living in Karachi, one cannot simply gloss over the unpredictability of the metropolis. Commuting with a cellphone is a liability in itself; when it comes to carrying eight basic point-and-shoots, with young boys and girls uncovering localities labelled to be no-go areas, it was all about overcoming the fears. Sharjeel Ahmad, a ruffled hair lensman who lead the Central district, has been photographing since 2001.
“I had a fear of taking my camera out to the streets since the time I was mugged in the dhobi ghat at Garden East.”
Another guy, a chartered accountant by profession, believes in following one’s heart and
“The exercise pushed me to do something which I had stopped since the past three years. It wasn’t easy for travelling with a young set of people, with everyone carrying a camera, photography bhi sikhani hai, bachay ka khayal bhi rakhna hai aur camera ka bhi khayal rakhna hai – it all resulted in boosting my confidence.”
The photographs on display were absolutely raw, with not the slightest bit of amendments made to them. Shots of buildings, food, portraits, heritage sites and unsung heroes, not a single snap had been edited as Rabeea Arif, the curator of the event discloses.
“When I was allotted the task, I knew I had to put up the exhibition in a way to portray the concept that there is more to Karachi than what meets the eye. I wanted to make the works of these evolving minds to communicate with the audience.”
A ringside view of the art gallery was bound to leave the visitor enthralled. The doleful eyes peeking from one corner of the pictorial wall to the adept fingers of the fisherman of Baba Island, visitants could be seen wearing headsets and listening to audio stories of the students. Steve Jobs’ innovations made the gallery more interactive. Alongside the photo walls, there were iPod Shuffles with a recorded selection of stories.
“This being a photo as well as a writing project, we knew it won’t be practical to put forward all the stories we received. So to make it a bit more exciting we set up photo essays on digital screens,” Rabeea asserts.
I Am Karachi Museum went out of line in bringing together the diverse chunk of the megalopolitan’s populace.
One story that the students uncovered brought Ganga Bai to limelight, the caretaker of Sri Punch Mukhi Hanuman Mandir, living in astute poverty. Several similar stories have surfaced during the interactive sessions of kids with their subjects. As Ahmad expresses, “once you are behind the lens, you have to know your subject and then connect it with the surroundings.”
The writing programme was headed by six facilitators. Huma Rahat, a teacher looking after two groups shares her experience of working with her band. “We had mixed ability classes. I was looking after the Central district and we had kids from multifarious backgrounds who wrote travelogues in their natal languages.”
With public readings by playwright Shandana Minhas and prolific writer Bina Shah, the aura of the patio was truly mystifying with words reverberating off the on-looking moments stuck in time, gradually coming to life.
The two-day event had Karachiites spellbound. Obviously missing out food in a local event was unthinkable and for that a dhaaba was set up in the garden area where the uber favourite chai by locals was served along with a golden brown, paratha. This similar spot was chock-full as the sun set with attendees all grooving to the beats of Asif Sinan, a musician known for making his guitar sound like a sitar.
In the midst of Sufi poetry in the courtyard, Coldplay’s Sky Full Of Star’s had made a few nostalgic in the gallery. Just like these two genres – unthinkable to fuse – yet making the listeners in awe, I Am Karachi was a venture that has made a spot of its own in the minds of the locals.•