Photo feature

A photographer asks Indians in Europe: Are you a migrant or an expat?

A photo exhibition in Delhi explores the myriad journeys of the Indian diaspora.

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.

In just a few weeks, the sun will be scarce. But locals know exactly where to go to sweat it out – Dr Manivannan Ramaswamy’s Ayurveda centre in Ljubljana. Ramaswamy’s steam chamber – an ancient Indian object named 'Vashpaswedana' – has a temperature of 45 degrees. Ramaswamy is also using Ayurveda to help Slovenia’s World War II veterans overcome depression and anxiety. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Slovenia
In just a few weeks, the sun will be scarce. But locals know exactly where to go to sweat it out – Dr Manivannan Ramaswamy’s Ayurveda centre in Ljubljana. Ramaswamy’s steam chamber – an ancient Indian object named 'Vashpaswedana' – has a temperature of 45 degrees. Ramaswamy is also using Ayurveda to help Slovenia’s World War II veterans overcome depression and anxiety. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Slovenia

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.

Indians playing cricket in Sofia, Bulgaria. Prakash Mishra is heading the Asia Team and has been staying in Sofia for several years. In the team, there are people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Japan. Photo: Shome Basu/Bulgaria
Indians playing cricket in Sofia, Bulgaria. Prakash Mishra is heading the Asia Team and has been staying in Sofia for several years. In the team, there are people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Japan. Photo: Shome Basu/Bulgaria

Arts and aesthetics in the EU

Krishna Dutt came to Stockholm about 26 years ago with her husband and never left. A popular figure in Stockholm’s cultural circuit, she has written a book about her time in the city and even teaches Swedish. She has hosted artists such as Zakir Hussain in this very home and even though age has caught up with her, she still visits her sisters in India twice a year. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/Sweden
Krishna Dutt came to Stockholm about 26 years ago with her husband and never left. A popular figure in Stockholm’s cultural circuit, she has written a book about her time in the city and even teaches Swedish. She has hosted artists such as Zakir Hussain in this very home and even though age has caught up with her, she still visits her sisters in India twice a year. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/Sweden

"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.

Dr Sruti Bala sets up her tabla in her study as she gets ready for her daily practice session. She has been learning the instrument for the past decade and is quite good at it. At the University of Amsterdam, she teaches in the department of theatre studies. Dr Bala studied in Mumbai and her home is in Coimbatore, where her parents still live. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/Netherlands
Dr Sruti Bala sets up her tabla in her study as she gets ready for her daily practice session. She has been learning the instrument for the past decade and is quite good at it. At the University of Amsterdam, she teaches in the department of theatre studies. Dr Bala studied in Mumbai and her home is in Coimbatore, where her parents still live. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/Netherlands

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.”

Asker, the head chef at the India Club Bar and Restaurant, came to London 20 years ago from Kerala. Along with his colleague and friend Khaled, he never thought of working anywhere else other than the historic India Club. The menu offers a range of home-cooked Indian dishes and his version of the mango lassi is a favourite with customers. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/England
Asker, the head chef at the India Club Bar and Restaurant, came to London 20 years ago from Kerala. Along with his colleague and friend Khaled, he never thought of working anywhere else other than the historic India Club. The menu offers a range of home-cooked Indian dishes and his version of the mango lassi is a favourite with customers. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/England

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.

Nita Mishra picks berries on a hill close to her home in Dublin. This is where she often comes to think and write. A Ph.D student at the University of Cork, Ireland, Nita has two children – Narayani, 19 and Tanay, 12. She’s been living in Ireland for nine years now along with her family and she’s also a respected and published poet. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/Ireland
Nita Mishra picks berries on a hill close to her home in Dublin. This is where she often comes to think and write. A Ph.D student at the University of Cork, Ireland, Nita has two children – Narayani, 19 and Tanay, 12. She’s been living in Ireland for nine years now along with her family and she’s also a respected and published poet. Photo: Paroma Mukherjee/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.”

Tanya Desai, born and brought up in Luxembourg, performs Bharatanatyam during India Day celebrations. Photo: Shome Basu/Luxembourg
Tanya Desai, born and brought up in Luxembourg, performs Bharatanatyam during India Day celebrations. Photo: Shome Basu/Luxembourg

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.”

The Central Mosque of Lisbon was inaugurated in 1985. The initiative to build this mosque was taken by an Indian, Abdool Magid Vakil, an economist by profession who felt the need of a mosque in Lisbon when he came to study there. Photo: Shome Basu/Portugal
The Central Mosque of Lisbon was inaugurated in 1985. The initiative to build this mosque was taken by an Indian, Abdool Magid Vakil, an economist by profession who felt the need of a mosque in Lisbon when he came to study there. Photo: Shome Basu/Portugal

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.

Indian delicacies being prepared during a community event in Warsaw. Authentic Indian dishes are served there every year, including 'puri' (deep-fried bread), 'paneer' (cottage cheese) and 'halwa' (dessert), which the Indian community loves. They spend hours there with family and friends. Photo: Shome Basu/Poland
Indian delicacies being prepared during a community event in Warsaw. Authentic Indian dishes are served there every year, including 'puri' (deep-fried bread), 'paneer' (cottage cheese) and 'halwa' (dessert), which the Indian community loves. They spend hours there with family and friends. Photo: Shome Basu/Poland

“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.

Rashmi Bhatt came to Italy 20 years back to purse his Ph.D from Florence University on Italian art history and could never go back. A musician since the age of 13, Bhatt is now one of Europe’s most famous percussionists who has collaborated with Sting, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shakira and Zakir Hussain. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Italy
Rashmi Bhatt came to Italy 20 years back to purse his Ph.D from Florence University on Italian art history and could never go back. A musician since the age of 13, Bhatt is now one of Europe’s most famous percussionists who has collaborated with Sting, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shakira and Zakir Hussain. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Italy

“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.

Kamal Parwani's office is interesting – every inch of the wall is pasted with family photographs – mainly of his two daughters. He says, “That’s my CV, that’s my encyclopedia”. He got into business at the age of 17 as he didn’t want to waste time on education. Now, 37-year-old Kamal runs a 5,000 square metre warehouse, trading in over 7000 items every day. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Spain
Kamal Parwani's office is interesting – every inch of the wall is pasted with family photographs – mainly of his two daughters. He says, “That’s my CV, that’s my encyclopedia”. He got into business at the age of 17 as he didn’t want to waste time on education. Now, 37-year-old Kamal runs a 5,000 square metre warehouse, trading in over 7000 items every day. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Spain

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.

'Curry king' Micky Sehgal arrived in Italy in June 1980 with $500 in his pocket. Today, Sehgal owns three of Rome’s most famous Indian restaurants by the name 'Maharajah' and has an annual turnover of over €1.5 million. Sehgal’s first home was 65 square metres but now he lives in a 1600 square metre villa. Maharajah’s clientele includes Anthony Hopkins, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Sachin Tendulkar, Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Rajnikant. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Italy
'Curry king' Micky Sehgal arrived in Italy in June 1980 with $500 in his pocket. Today, Sehgal owns three of Rome’s most famous Indian restaurants by the name 'Maharajah' and has an annual turnover of over €1.5 million. Sehgal’s first home was 65 square metres but now he lives in a 1600 square metre villa. Maharajah’s clientele includes Anthony Hopkins, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Sachin Tendulkar, Shahrukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Rajnikant. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Italy

“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.

Vinay Venkatraman, 37, is an alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and runs a design company called LeapCraft in Copenhagen. He opened the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design and specialises in product design involving sensors and data. He just created an air quality sensor which measures pollution and weather conditions which is now being put on lamp posts across Denmark, Dubai, London and Norway. He has been living in Denmark for the past 10 years. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Denmark
Vinay Venkatraman, 37, is an alumnus of National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and runs a design company called LeapCraft in Copenhagen. He opened the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design and specialises in product design involving sensors and data. He just created an air quality sensor which measures pollution and weather conditions which is now being put on lamp posts across Denmark, Dubai, London and Norway. He has been living in Denmark for the past 10 years. Photo: Kounteya Sinha/Denmark

“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.

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