When he first met Dr Manivannan Ramaswamy, photographer-journalist Kounteya Sinha felt he was the most boring subject he had ever encountered.
Before this assignment, the 37-year-old had interviewed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, and perhaps it was the memory of that high-stakes project that kept him from truly appreciating Dr Ramaswamy, an Ayurvedic doctor in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
Sinha spent two hours speaking with Dr Ramaswamy, who he said only smiled once through the conversation – when referring to his wedding, due in two months.
“I was leaving his office when I spotted that in the corner,” Sinha said, pointing to a black and white picture. The photograph depicted Ramaswamy sitting enclosed inside a wooden cupboard – the object that Sinha had spotted in his room. Only his head was visible in the photograph, his eyes closed. The doctor appeared to be in a meditative state.
A vintage pressure cooker was attached to the cupboard, with a pipe. Ramaswamy, Sinha explained, was in a self-fashioned sauna called Vashpaswedana, the likes of which are available in Kerala and at Ayurveda massage centres all over India.
Kounteya Sinha, along with photo-journalists Paroma Mukherjee and Shome Basu, recently presented New Homelands, an exhibition of their work on the Indian diaspora living in the European Union. According to Tomasz Kozlowski, Ambassador of the European Union, Indians living in the EU form the world's largest diaspora population, at 16,00,000.
All three photographers travelled to seven countries in total: Mukherjee’s month-long journey took her to Ireland, Sweden, Holland, England, Germany, Austria and Hungary, while Basu went to Bulgaria, Slovakia, Poland, Luxembourg, Belgium, France and Portugal. Sinha spent close to two months exploring Italy, Slovenia, Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Lithuania and Denmark.
Arts and aesthetics in the EU
"I wanted to interact with people in the field of arts and aesthetics.” Mukherjee said. “Music for me is deeply connected to memory and nostalgia.”
This is evident from Mukherjee's portraits: a man sitting with a Mridangam covered in velvet, a grey-haired woman preparing her tablas for her daily practice.
Mukherjee's first time travelling to the EU was when she was on assignment for The Indian Express to cover a Himesh Reshammiya concert in the United Kingdom.
“It was a poor choice of an assignment but at least I got a chance to travel to London,” she said. “I realised that 15,000 Indians had showed up to watch him perform.”
Mukherjee's portraits tend towards pastel palettes. She makes the most exquisite use of this in a portrait showing a woman, Krishna Dutt, gazing out of her flower-covered balcony in Stockholm, and in another image of a woman picking berries by a hillside in Ireland.
Mukherjee describes herself as an introvert, but said photography forced her to be more social. “I had to get to know the subjects of my photographs, in order to better understand the spaces that gave them a sense of belonging.”
Collateral effects of Brexit
Shome Basu travelled from the Eastern Bloc to Central Europe, ending in Western Europe.
“The journey was shaped kind of like a horse-shoe,” he said. “I wanted to see the mixture of cross-culture and the multi-ethnicity.”
Basu enquired of every Indian he met, whether they considered themselves migrants or expats, a question that elicited surprising answers.
“Almost everybody wanted to be called an expat," Basu said. According to him, this was because the label implied more privilege than the term migrant. "But I discovered many migrants among them as well.”
One of Basu’s subjects, who described himself as a migrant, was an engineering student in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. He told Basu that students like him preferred to enter EU through Eastern Europe, where the cost of life and education is cheaper than in the West.
Apart from the long-term effects of Brexit on the EU, Basu said one of the things that a restaurant named Namastey India in Poland was worried about, was where they would get their masalas from.
“They import all their Indian masalas from London – such as Shan and Catch,” he said. When Britain leaves the EU next year, the tariff of products from London is likely to skyrocket.
“The restaurant managers will be in a soup,” Basu said.
56 days, 160 interviews, 18,000 photographs
In his artist statement, Sinha compares his interviewees with explorers:
“I found Vasco da Gama in a Sindhi man who started his life selling electronics in Madrid. Marco Polo has a south Indian accent today, and is looking after one of Cyprus’ most respected politicians. Christopher Columbus walks in a nun’s dress, feeding immigrants in Nicosia.”
Sinha's work is prolific – he conducted 160 interviews in the 56 days he spent in the EU, and took a total of 18,000 photographs.
Unlike Basu and Mukherjee, Sinha said he preferred to spend his time in the “smaller, most difficult countries” of the Union.
“For me the journey of an Indian who went from India to places like Cyprus, Slovenia was much more challenging than going to the larger countries,” he said.
Forty-three of Sinha's 18,000 images are part of New Homelands.
In Barcelona, Spain, the Indian embassy gave him the name of just one Indian. Sinha discovered 80 more, through a process he referred to as “urban hunting through invisible footprints”.
Sinha's work is almost encyclopaedic, covering Nicosia in Cyprus to Barcelona and Madrid in Spain. In Italy, he made his way through Venice, Padua and Rome.
“I went on an assignment, came back a patriot,” Sinha said, acknowledging that he had never felt prouder of being an Indian than after spending two months travelling abroad.
“The story is always in the last lines,” he said. “It always comes from the unannounced corners.”
New Homelands: The Indian Diaspora in the European Union is on at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi till November 7. Curated walks of the exhibition will be held daily till October 30, at 6.30 pm on weekdays and 5 pm on weekends.