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Photos: Greed has kept the hellfires of Jharia coal town burning for over 100 years

A new photobook by Ronny Sen captures the grim reality of the coal mining town in Jharkhand.

A tree is etched on the cover of photographer Ronny Sen’s book End of Time, with a small fire under it. It suggests in all simplicity, the creation of nature versus the creation of man. The fire is seen burning, with no desire to rest. In 2013-’14, Sen spent about three months in the coal mining town of Jharia in Jharkhand, while travelling with filmmakers Jean Dubrel and Tiane Doan Na Champassak. Sen wasn’t carrying any camera gear during the duration of the shoot. He did have his mobile phone though, and the series End of Time has been shot entirely on its camera.

For over 100 years, Jharia has faced raging fires, owing to the mining of its rich coal reserves. The first fire was reported in 1916 and since then, the blaze has consumed not only the landscape but also the health and livelihoods of the villagers who live there. “I wanted the book to be published by an Indian publisher, a non-profit entity, and also be affordable,” said Sen, who won the Getty Instagram Grant in 2016 for this work.

Published by the Nazar Foundation as a photography monograph and edited by photo editor Sanjeev Saith, Sen’s book has a very silent demeanour and locates the images at a comfortable distance from the digital medium, where the public first viewed them. At first glimpse, the spine of the book and the lack of page numbers remind one of another recently published photobook, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016/Nine Photographers, but that’s where the similarity ends. End of Time as a book is a considered deliberation of Jharia’s suffering, which according to Sen, is “manifested with shards and fragments; random, scattered elements of human existence, a community without a future, plunderers of coal who move from site to site with blasting mines”.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

The book is slightly bigger than a regular school notebook, which makes it easy to carry around and refer to anytime. Perhaps that is its real purpose, for Sen’s photographs are not just objects contained in pages, rather an evidence of everything that is wrong in Jharia and in need of immediate intervention by the state. The first few pages of the book take one through Jharia’s desolate landscape, which is consumed by fire and fumes. All the compositions are vertical and were shot using no filter on the iPhone.

Saith saw about 350-400 photographs from Sen’s Jharia series at an exhibition in Delhi around two years ago and thought it would make for a good book. Sen said, “He [Saith] did a very unique job with my photographs. His way of seeing is not the way a regular photographer would look at images. His understanding of visuals lent a new life to my work and this book is as much his as it is mine.”

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

There is a series of four images which may seem identical to the layman’s eye, but on close inspection, reveal a man sitting on a rock at the edge of his village, watching a mine being blasted at a distance, as another man gradually walks into the scene in the third and fourth images – the larger landscape remaining unchanged. This sense of inertia, of waiting and watching, as coal corporations blast illegally within 500 metres of Jharia’s villages, is a poetic intervention by the editor, though no less tragic in its portrayal of ground reality.

Throughout the book, the tone of the images lend darkness to Sen’s work, as if a layer of smog looms large over Jharia’s otherwise picturesque self. Nestled amongst the numerous images of landscapes and fires is the stark reality of what endless burning can do to human and animal life, by way of two portraits next to each other – one of a man with a half-disfigured face and the other, a dead dog. This is followed by several visuals of objects and spaces in abandoned homes, which were affected by the constant burning.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.

There is not much text about Jharia’s state of affairs in the book, except for a note at the end, and that is perhaps a point to think about since the work is more in the realm of activism than an artistic depiction of the situation. There is no escaping Jharia’s reality and Sen is sure to remind one of the consequences of greed and capitalism. “Am I an excellent bookmaker?” Sen asked, answering, “I am not. But my work is political.”

In his book, Jharia could be an imaginary place. There is no real marker of identification in the photographs, but the struggles are there to see. The men and women in the book are coal-pickers, who take coal home from the site of blasting and sell it for a petty amount to make a living. One might look at the images and think of them as daily wage labourers, but these are people living with raging fires beneath their homes. “People cover their heads and run when there’s a rainfall of stones during the blastings,” said Sen.

“It’s like magic realism – completely unbelievable until you get there and see it for yourself,” he said.

From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
From the series 'End of Time', by Ronny Sen.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.