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The real tastemakers: Photos of Indian men and women whose labours put food on our tables

An exhibition of portraits by Pakistani-American researcher Sarah K Khan is currently on display in New York.

On a sweltering Sunday in June a few years ago, Sarah K Khan was invited to a simple Rajasthani breakfast of masoor dal, freshly-made chapatis and a mound of hot rice covered in powdered jaggery. The little feast had been made by a young man who works as a spice porter on weekdays at Gadodia Market, Asia’s largest spice market located in Khari Baoli in Delhi’s old city. He, along with other spice porters who live and work in Gadodia Market, spends his weeks carrying heavy loads for spice-trading companies but Sunday is when these porters wind down and relax.

Khan, a Pakistani-American researcher exploring food, culture, migration and sustainability, has been photographing the market since her first visit to India in 2001. “The source of flavour and taste, this center of spices in Delhi motivated me as did knowing that my father and his family walked these same streets before Partition,” said Khan, whose father’s family lived in Old Delhi. The stories she heard growing up was one of her major draws to the city. “Documenting the lives of the porters in portraits has been a long-term project. Most tourists came, walked around, looked at the views, took photos from a distance of the men labouring. I kept showing up and the porters became more open to me. And one porter said if you want to spend time come on a Sunday, when we rest. It is easier to interact.”

A spice porter working at the Gadodia spice market, Delhi. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.
A spice porter working at the Gadodia spice market, Delhi. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.

Untold stories

The images that she captured in this Delhi market, alongside the ones taken during her research meeting and speaking with many women farmers, found their way into a solo exhibition titled In/Visible: Portraits of Farmers and Spice Porters of India currently on display at New York University’s Kimmel Windows Gallery. The exhibition of 13 portraits has been curated by Grace Aneiza Ali, a faculty member at the university’s Tisch School of the Arts at the invitation of Pamela Jean Tinnen, director and lead curator of Kimmel Galleries.

Even though Khan has been photographing the market for almost 17 years, it was between 2014 and 2015 that she really got to know some of the porters. “A large majority of them come from farming background,” said Khan. “These men become the designated family member to travel to the city to bring in some cash while the rest stay behind and tend to their farms. The reasons for migrations are many and Old Delhi and Khari Baoli overflow with much migrant diversity. I want to highlight that most migrants anywhere work hard to make a living with dignity, and I wanted to capture them as individuals with vibrant personalities.”

To that end, none of the images show the men toiling or as beasts of burden. Instead the portraits reveal them striking a pose in their best. “For many of them it was their quiet time,” said Khan. “They would be hennaing their hair, shaving, cooking. A lot of them were resting or talking on the phone to their families. Many would see my camera and request me to take their photographs. I photographed them as they preferred, as they wanted to be seen.”

“There was one young porter, who called me ‘didi’, who was so eager to be photographed,” said Khan. “He planned the location, background and his serious gaze back at the camera. He struck different poses, and angles, fussed with his collar and took it very seriously. He would then take me to other porters, to their shops and godowns where they rested. The younger porters spent time getting ready, while other porters did not want to talk about where they were from, or their backgrounds. Instead they wanted me to take several photos of them in different poses with their friends close by.”

A woman farmer from Nagaland. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.
A woman farmer from Nagaland. Photo credit: Sarah K Khan.

Invisible women

Also in the exhibition are portraits of women who Khan met while researching and documenting the lives of women farmers as part of the Fulbright Scholar Programme. “There are 95 million women farmers in India,” said Khan. “Their informal labour and their extraordinary contributions are undervalued. They are encyclopedias of information and ecological knowledge about a specific place. The women I engaged with are seed savers, growers of crops, foragers, hunters and food processors, and culinary experts. I worked with Mirasi caste singers in Rajasthan, Siddi women farmers in Karnataka, women rice farmers in Nagaland, Adivasis in Telangana, millet processors in Andhra, and women street vendors in Delhi. All of them struck a chord with me.”

Here, too, Khan’s photographs’ central theme remains the strength of these women outside of their work as farmers and as resilient working individuals. She remembers meeting one such farmer in Nagaland, who had been elected to the village council, but being a woman, she was expected to make tea for the male members. Instead of refusing to make tea, which she feared could be used as an excuse to dismiss the meeting, the woman simply said that she will make tea before the council meeting starts, so that she is not excluded from the proceedings.

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