On an impulse, I went. I had not yet received a brief, or permission, to cover this exhibition. But because the teachers - Mioi and John - had come to invite me personally, because I was surprised by the deceptive joy, the intimate ache of the photos (photoshopped out of all symmetry, unfortunately), I went to the Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts.
It was almost closing time, the watchman almost didn't let me in; the few boys playing ball in the lawn did not understand my language; feeling foolish, I nodded and smiled until Mioi arrived.
They'd brought some musical instruments along. Drums. And long lathi-like sticks with ghungoos attached to one end. When I looked curious, they put on an impromptu performance for me. Mioi and one of the students, Jayaram, picked up a lathi each, a thumping took up my heart, and they danced. Dhhum! and chham! Teacher and student facing each other, smiles too wide to be mere performance, eyes squinting with the fun of it, Mioi quickly growing breathless, laughing.
There's a lot I've forgotten about the Born Free School (Bangalore) and the exhibition they brought to Delhi last year. But the dhhum and chham and those smiling eyes... I often re-live those. And the thing John said, about this country. 'Everything - everything! - is poisoned with a little shot of child labour'.
Here are some of the things I wrote about the students at the Bornfree Art School, rescued child labourers themselves, who have undertaken a pledge to free other working children. [I no longer have the photos but here's linking to a site, with pictures of some of the people I'm referring to below]
Eleven-year old Jalalli used to be a cowherd once. Though he now studies the arts and does not need to mind cows for a living, he retains a fondness for all things bovine. That much is evident from his choice of photographic subject: cows; but since the project was supposed to focus on child labourers, Jalalli ended up capturing child-cowherds on camera.
His photographs, and those credited to dozens of other former child labourers, are now part of 'the History Expedition', a traveling exhibition put together by the Bornfree Art School, Bangalore. The school combines art and activism. Rescued child labourers are slowly brought back into the mainstream fold of education, but the process is initiated through art - through music, dance, theatre, sculpture, crafts and now, photography. Some of the crafts were also on show. Baskets and decorative bamboo plates were covered with prints of ancient terracotta coins. Several of the products carried short stories like the ones from the Panchatantra, except that the stories had been edited and rewritten to avoid derogatory references to people or animals.
The History Expedition is as much a cross-country documentation trip as it is an exhibition. About 15 children and five adults wove their way across Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Goa on bicycles and on buses. 4040 kilometres, 3000 hours of film, and 25,000 photographs later, they had seen just about every form of child labour conceivable - from child prostitutes to stone-crushers, four-year-old housewives to cotton-pickers.
A photograph, titled 'sweet violence', shows a young girl making sugar in Bidar. Another, titled 'Haya!' shows a smiling boy whipping himself to collect money. 'Dead dolls' captures a row of albino baby girls, made to sit on the street like live curio exhibits, while passersby threw coins at them.
A little girl, bare-chested, carries a heavy statue of a deity on her head. Two children pose as scarecrows in a field. A gaggle of pre-pubescent girls with mangalsutras round their necks, drawing water from a well. A child selling spider-man masks. A faceless figure holding up a sickle against a deep, blue sky.
It is hard to believe that the pictures have been created by mere children who have probably never touched a camera before. Colour and expression have been captured with truth and often, with a sense of fun that might have been impossible in the hands of an adult. There is little attempt to dramatize the agony of the toiling children; there are more smiles than screams, but the whole picture is unsparing.
Muniyappa, a former ragpicker, commented on one of his own pictures where he found a six-year-old water-seller, crying. "The only water she has, is the tears in her eyes." Muniappa was very upset when he met the girl, who would walk three kilometres everyday, barefoot, to fetch water, which she could sell for a mere Rs 5.
John Devaraj, an artist who founded the school and accompanied the children to Delhi with the exhibition, pointed out that the photographs were as much about the artists as the subjects. "Our artists are all former child labourers. What you see now is the victims writing their own histories through other child victims."
Jalalli, for instance, went from suckling milk straight from the herd's udders, to being bonded to a tea-stall owner in Bangalore - not because his family had incurred a debt, but because a software engineer, a regular customer, disappeared without paying a Rs 100 bill.
Prashanth, a fourteen-year-old, has been taking pictures of water in brilliant hues of yellow: but look beyond the spectacular colours, and you notice child-fishermen. Prashanth himself used to sell flowers once, but life was no bed of roses. "The owner of the flower-shop used to hit me with a pair of scissors. Each time I made a mistake, he'd hit me on the back of my hands. So, I ran away and became a ragpicker".
Devaraj laughs as he recalls the nickname given to the boy. "They called him 'brass-boy'. He would steal anything made of brass."
Jayaram, a teenaged boy whose body is marked with scars and other signs of violence, shyly admitted that he used to steal too; in fact, he stole from the police! Laughing, he chose his words carefully, "I worked in a bar and restaurant first, and then, well, you could say that I worked with the police." Actually, he would pilfer bullets, which he would sell by the kilo, for their metal content.
Although Jayaram has been in lock-up before, he is rather proud of his most recent arrest. While taking the photo 'Dead Dolls', he and a schoolmate, Raju, were arrested by the police. They were handcuffed and paraded through the streets. But Jayaram feels vindicated. "This was the first time in my life that I was handcuffed for doing the right thing."
These young artists are acquainted with the dangers of challenging the adult world that employs children, and taking this road trip has taught them what they didn't already know. For instance, they found children working in puffed-rice factories where sand has to be heated at temperatures of 1400 degrees. Many get hurt and some, like thirteen-year-old Tariq Ali, die. Similarly, the silk industry likes to employ small children, who are used as cocoon cooks, more or less.
They also discovered that Bangalore, which likes to call itself the 'rose capital of the world', employs hundreds of little girls to pluck about 2100 tonnes of roses, everyday.
In Bijapur, they found - and photographed! - a policeman roughing up a child prostitute who appeared to be soliciting clients near the Gol Gumbaz. These girls were neither rescued nor rehabilitated, but simply driven away each evening by baton-wielding constables.
The pictures in the History Expedition are poignant but the subjects do not beg for sympathy. There is a heart-breaking note of defiance in their smiles, their happy acceptance of the moment, their trust in the camera. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the photos were taken by children like themselves. Yet, the photographs evoke outrage and bewilderment at the sheer scale of the problem - it appears as if there is not one single industry or product that does not involve children.
Devaraj was unsparing in his critique. "The bricks in your house, the milk and sugar in your tea, the roses you buy for your wife, computers, other gadgets, the kumkum on your forehead, the puffed rice in your bhel-puri, bananas, tomatoes, spices, silk - everything is poisoned with a little shot of child labour."