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 Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi, Bhupen Hazarika’s partner of 39 years, talks to Sonia Sarkar about her passionate relationship with the legendary singer, his commitment to his work and his liking for Bengali cuisine

There is a chill in the Guwahati air — as if underlining the climate of bereavement and sorrow. At almost every crossing, huge hoardings pour out condolence messages. We feel your absence, says one. We pay homage to you, says another.

Three weeks after the death of Bhupen Hazarika, the city is still in mourning. As the driver of my car puts it, “Every leaf of every tree here has been grieving his loss.”

But as I enter a three-storey house — called Nirjarapar, or stream on its side — in east Guwahati’s Chandmari, the mood is different. There is a sense of calm and peace in the house. Filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi — Hazarika’s partner for 39 years — is not red eyed any more. But then, as she says, the fact that he is no more is still to sink in. “I have been attending to streams of people since his cremation. I haven’t got the time to mourn,” says Lajmi, 57.


However, a month before the death of the Dadasaheb Phalke award and Padma Bhushan winner, she realised he was slipping away. “I used to cry inconsolably then. Perhaps, I was preparing myself for this day.”

Singer and composer Hazarika died in a Mumbai hospital after respiratory and kidney failure. His body was cremated in Guwahati. There was a public outpouring of grief as hundreds of thousands of people turned up to pay their last respects to Assam’s best known cultural icon.

For Lajmi, however, the grief was intensely private. “It was terrible to see him turn into ashes. But I had promised to be with him till the end,” says Lajmi.

She had pledged to be with him way back in 1971. She was 17 and studying psychology at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, and he was 45 and already an established singer and composer. They first met when he was scoring the music for Aarop, a film directed by Lajmi’s uncle, Atma Ram. “I was awed by his charisma,” she recalls.

She was introduced to his music with the song He Dola, which portrayed the life of palanquin bearers. “Being a teenager with an artistic bent of mind, I was bowled over by his creative genius. He was a rebel, a maverick, a humanist — and also an indisciplined and disorganised person,” says Lajmi with a smile.

Five years into the relationship, she decided to move in with him to his Golf Club Road flat in Calcutta. “My father thought that the attraction would not last for long. My mother is still not able to accept the relationship,” she says.

But she went ahead — to become not just his companion but also his manager. “He was an alcoholic then and spent all his money unwisely. So I had to convince him to put things in order.”

But Lajmi, then in her early 20s, soon realised it was going to be an “uphill” task. “The initial days were tumultuous. Though he was much ahead of his time when it came to work, he also had a conservative mindset. It was difficult for him to accept a woman managing his work.” Lajmi points out that she — the daughter of artist Lalita Lajmi and niece of filmmaker Guru Dutt — came from a “progressive-minded” family. “Such prejudices did not exist in my family,” she says.

“Earlier, in most social gatherings, he introduced me as his manager,” she remembers. “From the mid-1980s, he started calling me his partner,” says Lajmi, who directed her first Hindi feature film Ek Pal in 1986. Hazarika composed and sang for the film.

But why did they not get married? He had, after all, separated from his wife Priyamvada Patel almost 20 years before Hazarika met Lajmi. Patel lives in Canada, while their son Tej, who was present at his funeral, is in the US.

“He was horrified by the idea of marriage. I also gradually realised that he would never have made a good husband for anyone,” she says.

Two years ago, though, he did propose marriage, but Lajmi turned him down. “Perhaps he was insecure that I would leave him because he was ailing. For me, marriage made no sense then. But you know it is impossible to understand the mind of a man,” says Lajmi, and then advises me — perhaps only half in jest — to remain single.

The two didn’t consider having children either. “I love children but bringing up children outside marriage is difficult in India.”

But right now, Lajmi is fighting a battle with Hazarika’s son over the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust, set up by Hazarika in 2000. “The trustees are more interested in holding on to his estates rather than preserving his legacy,” Tej said at a press conference — angering Lajmi, who called his comments “wild, blasphemous and irresponsible”.

Tej, she counters, did not keep in touch with his father when he was alive. “Why didn’t he try to know about Bhupenda’s work and the trust all these years,” asks Lajmi, who is now the chairperson and secretary of the trust after Hazarika.

“This is an insult to each and every eminent member of the trust. But I also feel that it is a label against me personally because Tej presumes his father has bequeathed everything to me, even before the will has been read,” she says.

The will’s not out, but what she has certainly inherited from him is the will to carry on. “He was very proud of me and my work. He always encouraged me,” she says, running her fingers through her short hair. The sparkle of her gold and diamond rings catches my attention. I ask her if any of these were gifts from Hazarika. “He paid for a couple of them but never chose them for me,” she laughs.

Hazarika’s career started when he was barely 10. Legend has it that he was spotted by Assam’s leading cultural lights — Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnuprasad Rabha — when he was singing a devotional song. As a 12-year-old, he sang two songs in Agarwala’s film Indramalati. He wrote his first song Agnijugor firingoti moi at 13. Later, he produced, directed, composed and sang for several Assamese language films, including Era Bator SurShakuntala and Pratidhwani.

A leading member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a Left cultural group that was a part of the freedom movement, Hazarika was known for his rich baritone voice as well his lyrics, which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political issues.

Though a child of Assam, Hazarika was in many ways a national and global citizen. Bengal — where his Ganga tumi is an anthem — saw him as its own. He also composed for many Bengali films, including Jibon Trishna and Jonakir Aalo. Across the border in Bangladesh, he was equally feted for his Joy joy nobojato Bangladesh (triumphal salutations to newly born Bangladesh) — a song that celebrated the country’s liberation.

“Bengal and Calcutta made him a world citizen,” says Lajmi. He loved the “artistic fervour” of Bengal, she adds, as much as he loved its other flavours.

A gourmet, he was particularly fond of begun bhaja and kasha mangsho, she says as we sit down to lunch — over dal, crispy eggplant fritters and mustard fish. “He also loved cooking Bengali dishes, especially shorshe chingri bhape (steamed prawns in mustard),” she says, licking the spicy mustard paste off her fingers. “He was a Bengali — both artistically and intrinsically. In fact, he was hyperactive like most Bengalis,” she laughs.

He was a passionate lover too, says Lajmi, who fondly called him Bhupso — a name she coined to rhyme with their pet dog Lapso in their Calcutta home. Reading, watching television and creating songs — this is how the two spent their evenings together.

Hazarika, she adds, loved wine and women. “I knew he had his flings. But those women were romancing a celebrity. I knew he was committed to me,” she says.

And she was so committed to him that his career came well before hers. “I made only six feature films in these many years because for me his work was the priority,” says the director whose acclaimed women-centric films include RudaaliDaman and Darmiyaan.

In 1996, they moved to Lajmi’s apartment in Lokhandwala in Mumbai. Mumbai was as much a home for Hazarika as the other cities. He composed several songs for Bollywood — including Dil hum hum kare for Rudaali. Recently, Hazarika sang M.K. Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnava jana to in the film Gandhi To Hitler.

“After 2006, I found no time for my own work because of his prolonged illness,” she says.

But despite being his committed companion, Lajmi has often been under attack. Two years ago, she was mired in a controversy after images of the ailing singer being carried in a chair to the banks of the river Brahmaputra for a commercial shoot were splashed by the media. She was accused of pushing him to work despite his frail health. “Strangely, these are the same people who are now coming to express their condolences. I suppose this is an act of penance for them,” she says.

Lajmi was also accused of pushing him towards the Bharatiya Janata Party when Hazarika fought and lost an election as a BJP candidate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election from Guwahati. “Actually, I tried to dissuade him — but he was determined as he wanted to do something fruitful in politics,” she now replies. “But the people of Assam did not like it and they thought he betrayed the Left since he had long been associated with the IPTA,” she says.

Hazarika, who had been an independent legislator in Assam from 1967 to 1972, felt he had been rejected by the people when he lost heavily in 2004. At the same time, she says, some family members sued him, accusing him of usurping family property. “He suffered his first heart attack in 2006. Three years later, he underwent a bypass surgery. Slowly, he went into depression,” she says as her voice trails off.

The fear of death started to stalk him. “He often asked me if he would be remembered after his death. Ay bedona loye Bhupen da ghusi gol (Bhupen da left with a lot of pain),” she says in her accented Assamese.

But Lajmi stresses that his music and memories will be with her forever — even though he has moved on. “He was not someone who could be held back at one place, she says, recalling his song Moi eti jajabor (I am a nomad). He is still here, there and everywhere.

(Interview published in The Telegraph on 27 November 2011:

For the past half-a-decade, the artform has been dabbling in issues such as social injustice, corruption, human rights and the refugee crisis.

Street art of Athens, Street art of Athens , sunday eye, Street art of Athens sunday eye, indian express, indian express news

Credit: INO
The walls of the neighbourhoods of Athens, especially Metaxourgeio, Psirri, Keramikos and Exarcheia, are plastered with tags, graffitis and murals that make political commentary.

Twelve men, dressed in formals, are busy “eating up” money served on a long table. A few supplicating hands of starving people reach up towards the table to grab their share. That’s just the story of Greece in short, depicted on the walls of Gazi, once an industrial hub of the capital city, Athens. This 100-m-wide and 9-m-tall mural by Greek artist INO is a dark work of symbolism, inspired by the 15th-century mural painting, The Last Supper, by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. “Tricky people are trying to get into the game with the corrupted deals. It’s them who are trying to get a share of the pie, while majority of people have been left out,” says the INO spokesperson.
The image which came up in February this year reflects the growing inequality in Greece.


The newly-elected Prime Minister of Greece, the centre-right New Democracy party’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has to cope with all these challenges. As of now, the walls of Athens don’t have nice things to say about his extreme nationalist supporters. Five months before the elections, the mural, Liberte, Egalite, Pisokolite, painted by street art group at Metaxourgeio, created a buzz. Pisokolite is a slang in Greek which means anal sex. This mural which shows protesting people, including a naked man with the flag of Greece, takes a potshot at the rally that took place in January on the streets of Athens, opposing the move by the Greek MPs to ratify a landmark accord allowing the country’s tiny northern neighbour Macedonia to change its name to North Macedonia. The nationalist protesters claim Macedonia belongs to the Greek people.

“Figures depicted in the mural are real people, including the naked person who participated in the rally. This mural and its title is a bitter comment on the fascists who participated in the rally, hence the use of slang,” says 43-year-old Psycho Brunette Boy, the nickname of one of the group of street artists formed in 2014. The walls of Athens will tell you, a section of Greeks are not happy with the fascists. In one mural at Kerameikos, stencil artist Lotek (not real name) shows smiling faces of a young man and a woman. The message reads —“F**k fascism — Long live the troublemakers.” “Athens is not Berlin” is next to a sketch of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, caricaturised as Mickey Mouse, is a barometer of popular sentiment against the European Union and its role in Greek austerity, started in 2010.

Political graffiti was common in Athens even during the Axis occupation and the 1940s civil war. But the contemporary street art got a new lease of life during the 2007-08 financial crisis, when it depicted deepening recession, civil unrest and unemployment. For the past half-a-decade, the artform has been dabbling in issues such as social injustice, corruption, human rights and the refugee crisis. For example, one of the interactive murals in Manolis Anastasakos’s To Differ series is on the refugees coming into Greece. The artist drew the outline of the figures, while the colour was added by immigrants. It was viewed as a collaborative project of inclusion. Artist Fikos, 32, made a mural called, Bodies near the port of Piareus, the main port of Athens, showing a pile of naked bodies. “Thousands of refugees arrive at Piraeus from the Aegean islands. These are exhausted, sunburnt bodies, bodies carrying feelings, memories, hope, colours of the East, these bodies are stripped of everything,” says Fikos. Another moving mural at Exarcheia shows the image of queer and human rights activist, Zak Kostopoulos, who was lynched to death on the streets of Athens in September last year. It demands “justice for Zak/Zackie.”

“Street art is a form of resistance in Greece. The only necessity we recognise is the necessity of resistance in whatever way everyone thinks appropriate. We have chosen to express our truth and resist in a way that cannot be distorted,” says Brunette Boy. Street art is a form of activism. The thick angular fonts of the letters written on the walls suggest anger and frustration of the artists. But a lot of graffiti on the streets are also doodles difficult to decipher. Many see these doodles as vandalisation of public space. Gregory, a 29-year-old priest at Greek orthodox church in Monastiraki near Acropolis, says, “It’s all dirty. There is no message.”

According to Fikos, it’s Greek temperament that “confuses freedom with promiscuity.” “In Athens, literally everything is covered by tags. Unfortunately, Greeks are big fans of the triptych ‘cheap-fast-easy,’ so that’s another reason why we are seeing this huge production of graffiti but not as many big murals. Anyone could take a spray and do whatever he or she likes, not many want to work hard for years in order to develop a nice, mature painting style. Few would pay for that,” says Fikos. Yet, for many, street art renews hope — a hope to fight for a better life in Greece, a “dying” nation. “For us, street art is the same as freedom of speech,” says Psycho Brunette Boy.

This article first appeared in the print edition on October 27, 2019 under the title ‘Liberty, equality, graffiti’ in The Indian Express: y-eye/street-art-of-athens-6086265/

Data journalism is the in-thing now. But decades back, when there wasn’t much data available in public domain or tools handy, a journalist duo — James B. Steele and Donald L. Barlett- of Philadelphia in the US did world-class data investigative journalism. In 1971–72, they used a computer to analyze more than 1,000 cases of violent crime in Philadelphia. “Crime and Injustice” was the largest computer-assisted project of its time and was widely replicated by other journalists for years afterward. And then they continued to unearth some of the big investigative stories that won several awards.

While 76-year-old James B. Steele was recently speaking at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2019 at Hamburg, Sonia Sarkar caught up with him for an exclusive interview. Here, he speaks about data journalism of his times and today, what does a journalist do when government concocts data and what is the future of investigative journalism in the US.


Q. You did data journalism at a time when data wasn’t a popular tool of journalism. Today, data journalism is the thing to do. What difference do you see in the data journalism of today and that of the 70s?

A. We started to work on our first major story using data on the violent crime of Philadelphia in 1971 [Crime and Injustice series]. The whole concept of using data in stories was “foreign” then. People just didn’t do it.

We started to investigate the way judges were lenient on letting the criminals out on the streets. So we asked a simple question — what’s the census and there was no statistics on this. In the 60s and 70s, the whole system of collecting data was at its infant stage. We began looking at the closed cases of violent crime, we developed an one-page form for each case where we noted what the crime was, who were the people involved, the perpetrators, victims and judges. We didn’t have computer tools to compile data then. We realised that it is beyond our ability to do it manually.

We used a mainframe computer to build a database that examined violent crime and the Philadelphia court system.

My colleague Phil Meyer from the Knight Newspapers Washington bureau, designed the database coding scheme and analysis program for the seven-part newspaper series. We told him that we have a data — then he transferred it to IBM cards [This thin piece of cardboard, with 80 columns of tiny rectangular holes made the world quantifiable. It allowed data to be recorded, stored, and analyzed. For nearly 50 years, it remained the primary vehicle for processing the essential facts and figures that comprised countless industries, in every corner of the globe –] .

The same method was then replicated in number of cities in the US. The series won a few awards — it showed the racial biases and discrimination against people and also which judge was tough and which wasn’t.

Four decades later, data has not taken the place of interviews, or the traditional methods we use in journalism but it has become another tool which gives little more science to the stories we do. The data takes the story beyond the anecdotes. It is an additional tool that makes us more believable as journalists.

[In January 1974 the series was awarded the Haywood Brown Award]

Q. Do you think, there is lot of access to data and technology but there isn’t great investigative journalism happening around?

A. I can only talk about the US. I think, lot of journalists still have the fear of numbers and they have misconceptions about numbers. It’s a simple matter of perspective. It can be a simple thing — for say — looking at your local government — how employment has changed, how citations of bad housing or roads or infrastructure — there are range of things that you could do based on numbers — numbers make the world around — it’s how we find out everything or we don’t. It doesn’t take the place of other things but it will give you an insight into some issues…there are no sources who can tell you what the numbers can tell you. That’s the most powerful thing about numbers.

But yes, in the US, in the recent times, most big investigative stories if not all, have come out of data. That’s a big change as compared to 35–40 years ago.

Q. In a country like India, where government data is no more sacrosanct —

The country’s GDP growth between the financial years 2012 and 2017 was overestimated by around 2.5 percentage points, according to Arvind Subramanian, former chief economic advisor (CEA) to prime minister Narendra Modi. During that period, India’s economy grew at just 4.5%, and not the official 7%” [Source:]

What would be your advice for investigative journalists in India whose work is solely based on data?

A. I am trying to figure out a way…what would one do? [looks puzzled]

I guess what I would do — look at data of retail sales, exports, imports of the past — I would scan the current data which would appear most radically different from that of the past and find out what sampling the trade associations used — — if you can look at the reporting process of numbers to the government — perhaps, speak to the people who are in-charge of giving these numbers to the government. Instead of taking the whole thing, I might just look at one or two points and see what that reporting trail is. Then talk to experts to figure out if the numbers suggested by the government in GDP are realistic as opposed to the data provided by the respective association/industry.

Q. A large section of Indian media, at least, has become the stooge of the ruling Narendra Modi government. In fact, during Modi’s recent visit to the US, envying the Indian reporters [read stenographers] who travelled with him, US President Donald Trump told Modi, “You have great reporters. I wish I had reporters like them… Where do you find these reporters? It’s a great thing.”

This comment was made after an Indian journalist asked him –“Is there a roadmap to deal with the radical Islamic terror?”

How do you rate the US media under President Donald Trump?

A. I live in the east coast of the US — I see a lot of coverage that is anti-Trump. We know who trump is, what his actions are. Lot of information is there — hard to miss it.

Even otherwise, media is criticising Trump. For example, Wall Street Journal editorial page is very conservative — -as opposed to its news. They like Trump’s tax bill, some of the deregulation but they have been quite critical of some of the things he has done.

It looks like Indian media doesn’t criticise Narendra Modi government at all.

In the US, even if you have a liberal president, media largely does its job. As media, you don’t need to be on either side.

Q. What is the future of investigative journalism in the US?

It’s reasonably healthy in the US. The biggest problem is not investigative journalists doing big projects. There is a reduced coverage of government offices, city hall — those used to be good sources for investigative journalism. That’s one gap. But once issues are up — quite a few team doing good investigative journalism. Also, the pro-public non-profit sector in Wisconsin and Texas — is doing good investigative journalism, it wasn’t there when I was a young reporter. It’s still a fragile business market though.

Q. The other Donald — Donald Barlett — and you worked together for 40 years, first at The Philadelphia Inquirer, (1971–1997) where you won two Pulitzer Prizes and scores of other national journalism awards, then at Time magazine, (1997–2006) where you earned two National Magazine Awards, becoming the first journalists in history to win both the Pulitzer Prize for newspaper work and its magazine equivalent for magazine reporting, and later at Vanity Fair as contributing editors. You also have written eight books together. How did that happen because journalists have huge egos, they are never comfortable sharing byline with anyone else?

A. There was a similarity to the way we viewed certain number of things. We believed in fairness, we questioned the government officials. We both reporters and writers — divide our work. Sometimes, one of us would see a piece of the story which the other didn’t see.

Q. You are re-launching your book — “America: What Went Wrong” that was first published in 1991. What more can readers expect from this new book?

A. We are doing an introduction to existing old chapters — what’s happening now –where we are today. There are chapters on taxes, Washington Lobbying, deregulation etc. All of this will be updated.

The concerns of the people then and today remain the same.



LGBT+ artists – creating everything from movies to music – say state censorship, far from a deterrent, acts as a muse

By Sonia Sarkar

SINGAPORE, Oct 16 (Openly) – Homosexuality is banned in Singapore and arts are strictly censored – yet performers say the tough line helps foment a thriving, LGBT+ cultural scene in this conservative city state.

Drag artists stage sellout shows at upmarket bars, gay performance poets are in demand and singers use rap to come out.

Gay sex remains illegal – even in private – but LGBT+ artists feel they now have a firm foothold in popular culture.

The tiny island plays host to three LGBT+ arts festivals a year and performers say their work stands in resistance to the government as they weave past censors to reach a wider audience.

“It is our way of pointing at the world we live in and saying it’s ridiculous and wrong,” said drag queen Becca D’Bus, whose shows attract a young, prosperous and professional crowd in some of the city’s busiest downtown bars.

LGBT+ artists – creating everything from movies to music – say state censorship, far from a deterrent, acts as a muse.

“The harshness of the government … increases the ingenuity of artists in staging events without actually using words like ‘queer’ or ‘gay’,” said poet and author Cyril Wong.

“A word such as ‘gender’ is used instead.”

Gay sex between men – though not women – is a crime in the Southeast Asian city state, a state governed on strict lines and conservative values.

“In terms of laws, our rights for gay and bi men are bad. Gay sex is still a jailable offence. This is worse than many other neighbouring countries where gay sex is not illegal,” said writer Ng Yi-Sheng. “But again, we haven’t had crackdowns on gay men such as in Malaysia and Indonesia.”

Lawmakers are cautious on social reform, citing the rich ethnic and religious mix in Singapore’s 5.6 million inhabitants.

Activists are increasingly pushing back against the ban on gay sex, aiming for change in the courts and an end to discrimination across their young and modern society.

“From theatre to performance and visual art exhibitions, LGBT+ artists in Singapore have slowly carved out space and pushed the comfort zone for dialogue around gay counterculture,” said Tristan Cai, a Singaporean, who teaches art and Asian studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the United States.

LGBT+ festivals such as Pink Dot, Queer Zinefest and Love and Pride Film Festival have sprung up as a form of resistance against state restrictions on LGBT+ art and culture.

In July, popular musician Joshua Su came out to his parents by releasing a new track on which he raps: “G-A-Y-B-O-Y OK.”

Academics say the high-profile arts scene helps the wider push for LGBT+ rights.

“The LGBTQ community has been working hard for inclusion and against discrimination over the past decade….Their efforts have contributed to a level of greater acceptance in Singapore society,” says Ian Chong, associate professor in the department of political science at National University of Singapore.

The National Arts Council, a government funding body, said art had “the power to bring people in our diverse, multicultural society together” and reflected the many voices of Singapore.


“I talk a lot about queerness in my comedy, trying to debunk myths and stereotypes people may have about me,” 32-year-old bisexual poet and stand-up comedian Stephanie Chan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Film-makers have learnt to use the internet to get round the state censors of their LGBT+ output.

“If we were to make a film to show in cinemas, we will have to get a classification rating and some scenes may get cut,” said filmmaker Leon Cheo.

“Queer festivals make us feel less alone since social discrimination never goes away,” said 42-year-old poet and author Cyril Wong, a winner of the Singapore Literature Prize.

Yet Singapore has liberal credentials compared to some countries in the region.

Brunei sparked outcry this year over plans to impose the death penalty for gay sex, then backtracked after intense global criticism. In neighbouring Malaysia, the authorities caned two women last year after they were convicted of same-sex relations.

Popular opinion in Singapore appears divided.

Last year, an Ipsos survey revealed 55% of Singaporeans support the ban on gay sex. Yet a study by the Singapore-based Institute of Policy Studies found six in 10 people aged 18-25 believe same-sex marriage is not wrong.

Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong says his country occupies a middle ground on LGBT+ rights.

“We are not like San Francisco, neither are we like certain countries in the Middle East,” Lee told a conference in June.

“It’s something in between. It’s the way this society is.”


All plays and public performances – including poetry readings – must be screened and approved by the government’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

There are no official statistics on how much content is banned each year and the IMDA declined to comment.

In 2007, Ng was banned from reading a short story at a Pride event as it described a civil servant who turned gay after reading a piece of erotica.

“I felt indignant and frustrated, but it was also funny. By banning my story about a banned story, they were fulfilling this image of Singapore as a censor-happy nation,” Ng said, noting the irony of the government banning a story about censorship.

The National Arts Council (NAC) said it had regularly supported Ng’s projects.

Yet many gay artists and writers say their projects are rejected by the NAC and complain of missing out on teaching jobs at public universities.

A spokesman for the NAC said the body supported all artists and arts groups “according to our strategic priorities”.

The situation has improved immeasurably since the 1990s, Wong said, when LGBT+ art was limited to independent galleries or low-key informal events for fear of police persecution.

Now, there is more of a spirit of openness with local companies sponsoring festivals since as PinkDot, he added.

“This freedom cannot be underestimated,” Wong said.

Mainstream media, such as digital sites Today and Nylon Magazine, also prominently feature drag queens, added D’Bus.

The other visible change is that people – from both the straight and LGBT+ communities – flock to her shows.

“I find fun, glamour, frivolity, beauty and pleasure productive,” she said.

“They bring people together.”

[This story appeared in Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Openly on 16/10/2019. Original Link to the story:

(Reporting by Sonia Sarkar @sonia_26; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.



Because it’s bringing fearless art to an often fearsome place.

By Sonia Sarkar

The metal gate at 120A on Prinsep Street in the heart of Singapore is nondescript. A casual glance and you might think what lies beyond is a run-down shipping yard. But within the stacked black shipping containers something unexpected is taking place.

Welcome to DECK, Singapore’s independent art space. Ascend the metal staircase and you’ll find three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio, all free from government control and censorship, a rarity in this artistically conservative city-state.

artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK.

Artist Tristan Cai at his exhibition at DECK, “The Aesthetics of Disappearance.”


DECK — it stands for “Discovery Engagement Community Knowledge” — is a space that “gives photographers and the public an opportunity to discover, question and reinforce their creative processes and be inspired by photography,” says artistic director Gwen Lee. The idea for the gallery came to Lee and her colleague Jay Lau while they were organizing the 2012 biennial Singapore International Photography Festival. Both were looking for artistic space in crowded Singapore. Shipping containers, which also reflect the character of the port city, made sense. Two years later, thanks to donations and sponsorships, the 4,450-square-foot structure, designed by Ho Tzu Yin of Laud Architects, opened on a narrow strip of land in Singapore’s central business district.

The gallery’s main goal is to provoke conversations — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes downright taboo — through photography. “Censorship comes down hardest when the artist touches upon issues related to LGBT, [the] state’s perspective of race and multifaith policies, and [its] past security operations,” says Singapore artist Jason Wee.


In April, during bicentennial celebrations in which British colonizers were commemorated by the government, DECK featured an exhibition by U.S.-based Tristan Cai. His “The Aesthetics of Disappearance” examines the relationship between houseboys and their colonial masters and questions how history is constructed and narrated by those in power. In 2016, the gallery hosted a book launch party for Broy Lim, whose and now they know  explores his coming out (homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore). “Silenced Minority,” a photo essay of Singapore’s general elections that included opposition rallies, a topic rarely covered in mainstream media, was featured in 2015.

Deck ii

The minimalist interior of one DECK gallery.


So how does DECK get away with giving an artistic middle finger to state censorship? First, the building is independently owned — most visual arts galleries in Singapore lease space from the National Arts Council (NAC). Second, it’s mostly independently funded. These conditions allow the gallery to run the exhibitions it wants to (work shown in galleries that lease space from the NAC is subject to government approval). However, any exhibitions that involve nudity and sexuality require an M18 certificate (no one under 18 years is allowed entry).

Independent art spaces are necessary in a nanny state like Singapore, where state funding influences art, says local artist Seelan Palay. It’s a situation that “contributes to the climate of control” and fear, which leads to censorship and self-censorship, adds Palay, who runs Coda Culture, another independent art space.

As expected, DECK has encountered its share of opposition. Sometimes newspapers print exhibition announcements late, or not at all, Lee says. There have been delays on M18 certificate approvals, and repeated requests for assurances from gallery owners or curators that pieces have “been exhibited elsewhere without censorship,” she adds. “As of today, we have managed to carry out what we have planned. And we continue to keep trying without giving up.”

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Video source: Sonia Sarkar

Such is not the case for other independent art galleries here. Many have closed down due to lack of funding. DECK has managed to stay afloat operating on revenue from artwork sales, open house events, public workshops and public donations. Still, it’s challenging to compete with the bigger institutions when it comes to visitors, Lee says, since photography is only one aspect of the arts scene. “The challenge of sustainability is a constant,” she says.

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DECK has three galleries, an analog darkroom, a library and a studio


Despite this, DECK presses on, offering educational programs for young photographers and collaborating with educators on incorporating photography into arts curricula. There are plans to work with historians and researchers to gather more research and writing on Singapore photography in the region.

In the end, it’s all about staying true to art. DECK values critical discourse over fear of backlash, says Cai, who also teaches photography at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. With exhibitions that he calls “diverse, challenging and relevant,” the gallery offers a unique opportunity to see uncensored photography in a place where censorship is often close at hand.

DECK is open Tuesday to Saturday, 12 – 7 pm, and Sunday, 12 – 5 pm. Admission is $4.

  • Sonia Sarkar, OZY Author 




New Delhi is stepping up arrests of Kashmiri clerics and monitoring mosques, sparking concerns of a religious crackdown, not just a political one.

By Sonia Sarkar

It was a dark Eid for 11-year-old Saeed Mutaiba this August. When she returned home from a brief vacation at her grandfather’s house, she discovered police taking away her father, Mohammed Ameen, a prayer leader at Jamia Masjid in Awantipora, in the strife-torn region of Jammu and Kashmir. She, her mother and her 6-year-old brother have repeatedly visited the police station to appeal for his release — in vain.

“He looked tired. I felt helpless that I couldn’t do anything for him,” says the young girl.

A secular democracy, India has long tried to avoid emphasizing the religious undertones to the conflict in Kashmir, blaming it instead solely on Pakistan-backed militancy there. But in recent months, police have stepped up arrests of Islamic clerics and prayer leaders and clamped down on mosques in what was the country’s only Muslim-majority state. That has coincided with the Indian government’s move on Aug. 5 to strip off the constitutional provisions of autonomy Kashmir enjoyed while placing the region under lockdown. Though there is no official number of arrests, the government’s approach — which it argues is necessary for the region’s security — threatens India’s credibility, say analysts.



Ameen, 39, was arrested on Aug. 6. In June, the police arrested a cleric in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district. In March, two imams in south Kashmir’s Pulwama were arrested. The head of a religious body was denied a passport after he was charged with “anti-India” activities. Since Aug. 5, policemen in plainclothes are also recording the khutbahs (sermons) read out in mosques after Friday prayers, law enforcement officials concede. On Eid, Jamia Masjid and the Hazratbal Shrine — two of Kashmir’s most iconic shrines — were shut.

Donations made to Baitulmal, the charity fund in mosques, are being monitored. Police are asking clerics to divulge details of relatives living in Kashmir and in Pakistan. Their bank accounts are being scrutinized, officials say, arguing that these moves are aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in mosques.

“We know who is what in the mosques and how anti-India messages are spread by these clerics and religious institutions,” says Dilbag Singh, the police chief of Jammu and Kashmir.

Indeed, religious organizations like the Jamaat-e-Islami Jammu and Kashmir have long espoused the right to self-determination. And Indian officials too have kept the group’s imams under surveillance earlier. Others, like Jamia Masjid imam Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, have been detained multiple times over the past three decades. But earlier Indian governments have tried to avoid the impression that they’re against religious bodies, by only targeting individuals. Farooq has been part of negotiations on Kashmir’s future.

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Friday prayers at Srinagar airport, Jammu and Kashmir.


This February though, India banned the Jamaat. And now, notwithstanding ideological affiliations, all imams and mosques are under vigil. In September, religious processions for Muharram — the day of mourning the tragedy of Karbala — were banned in parts of Kashmir. Officials accuse some mourners last year of holding aloft portraits of slain militant leader Burhan Wani. “We use every occasion to remind ourselves that our fight is for freedom,” says Ubaid, who requested that his last name not be used, in downtown Srinagar’s Soura neighborhood.

But the Indian government is now increasingly blurring the line it maintained between religion and security practices, say many experts. Delhi-based strategic affairs analyst Ajai Sahni calls the clampdown on mosques and religious leaders by the ruling Hindu-nationalist BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi “ideology-driven.”

“The BJP’s strategy is to polarize and demonize Kashmiri Muslims,” he says. “These actions largely express communal prejudice compounded by an electoral calculus for political gains outside Kashmir.” The government’s moves, he says, are “intended to intimidate people of the Kashmir valley and tell them, ’Look, this is what we can do to you.’”

Hafsa Kanjwal, assistant professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, says the current Indian government sees the Muslim identity of Kashmiris as a threat. She says the efforts to exert control over religious spaces and leaders “is not surprising.”

India, experts point out, has seen worse threats to its sovereignty over Kashmir, such as in 1989, when local men picked up guns demanding azaadi (freedom). The government at the time mishandled the crisis, say analysts. Sahni recalls how after the Friday prayers in 1990–91, a section of mosques would name Hindu families and threaten them with violence if they didn’t leave Kashmir. “The government made a strategic error by facilitating their exodus, instead of providing them with security where they were,” Sahni says.

Yet there was no crackdown on religious institutions then. Now, a policeman at Awantipora police station has no hesitation in telling me on a Friday afternoon in August that he’s rushing to the Jamia Masjid — to “lead the prayers” — instead of letting the imam do so.

Some clerics point to the fact that especially over the past five years since Modi came to power, many educated Kashmiris, including engineers, research scholars and professors, have joined militancy. “If mosques are the only places of radicalization, then why would a research scholar or engineer join militancy?,” asks Hilal Ahmed, a 29-year-old imam at a Srinagar mosque.

But the government’s strategy could backfire, caution analysts. “Long detentions of religious leaders … [instead] of the narrow targeting of the troublemakers, will be interpreted as a broader communal assault on the Muslims,” Sahni warns.

For the moment though, those suffering the most are families like Ameen’s. Mutaiba’s wait for her father continues.



Now India Clamps Down on Kashmir’s Mosques

Okus-Bokus, by two Kashmiri women, comes as fears grow over loss of identity amid perceived attempts to erase culture.


Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Granny takes little Billa and Munni for a walk in Srinagar, and stops by the tomb of the mother of Zainul-Abidin, Kashmir’s former king, built around 1430.

“Look at Kashmir’s history, you see how tough the people are,” she tells her grandchildren. “They have been ruled by foreigners for long – 700 years of occupation.”

Granny, or Naen, Billa and Munni are fictional characters in a new children’s book, Okus-Bokus, written and illustrated by two Kashmiri women, 29-year-old Onaiza Drabu, and Ghazal, 24, respectively.

The story has resonated in Indian-administered Kashmir, which has been under lockdown since August 5, the day India stripped the region of some of its autonomy.

The title of the book is derived from the Kashmiri phrase hukus–bukus, which broadly translates to: “Who is s/he?, who am I?”

In the tale, granny teaches Kashmiri words from A to Z to the children while identifying traditions, culture and food habits.

This book comes against the backdrop of rising concerns that Kashmir’s demography and unique culture will change, with fears that India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP party will attempt to “Indianise” the region.

“Traditional ways of being Kashmiri are slowly losing relevance, and this book can tie Kashmiris to their roots,” co-author Drabu told Al Jazeera. “This book could help children of this generation [learn] all that we have in our history and culture, and hopefully set them on a quest for their Kashmiri identity.”

The author of the book [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Okus-Bokus co-author Onaiza Drabu, 29, said her book aims to educate children about Kashmir’s unique culture, which is neither Indian nor Pakistani [Courtesy: Onaiza Drabu]

Drabu said the book was written as an apolitical text, but acknowledged that it is not above political interpretation.

“Even though the book was not written consciously to refer to the pain of a Kashmiri, the language in use is alive, sub-consciously in my head too,” said Drabu.

Young Kashmiris related to the “language” Drabu referred to.

For instance, Javed, a 17-year-old from Srinagar, read “E” for “Enz” (goose) who “don’t fly like other birds,” as a metaphor.

“Like Enz, we too cannot fly. Indian forces have caged us,” he said.

In another entry that could be read as having a double meaning, the book refers to “al-hachi”, a dry Kashmiri pumpkin which is prepared in the summer and saved for the winter when it is unavailable.

The book says this helps when supplies are low, when the “roads become difficult to navigate”. 

Kashmiris preserve a range of vegetables, also including turnips, eggplants and tomatoes, so there is enough to eat during sudden curfews.

“At the peak of militancy in the 90s, curfews brought the valley to a standstill for days. In 2016, Kashmir was under curfew for about 99 days. Currently, despite government’s claim of ‘normalcy’ in the valley, shops are shut.

“Over the years, we have learnt innovative ways of coping with the crisis and to not die hungry,” Asiya Mushtaque, a 45-year-old teacher from Awantipora, told Al Jazeera.

Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India. There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.


US-based anthropologist Ather Zia recently wrote a series of children’s stories titled Gula of Kashmir, about Gula, a young fish who lives in the Verinag spring, that touches on Kashmir’s history and ethos.

She believes short stories can teach children about cultural and political resistance.

Nyla Ali Khan, a US-based author, academic and the granddaughter of Sheikh Abdullah, the first Muslim prime minister of Kashmir, said the narrative around Kashmiri identity tends to centre around “militancy”.

“Kashmir has a distinct identity and any attempt to homogenise it and make it part of the ultra right-wing monolithic identity should be thwarted. It is important for people to be educated about one’s culture first,” she told Al Jazeera.

Young Kashmiris allege that the Indian government has long tried to “Indianise” Kashmiri history through textbooks.

“Our history textbooks started with Partition of India followed by attacks by Pakistani rebels in Kashmir and glorifying Sheikh Abdullah’s role in acceding to India,” 30-year-oldSouzeina Mushtaq, who grew up in Bemina, Srinagar, told Al Jazeera.

“There was nothing about people’s anger against militancy and military occupation.”

Social scientist Mohamad Junaid, of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, believes that attempts to wipe out Kashmiri culture will intensify under the BJP.

In December, in a move that angered linguists, the Indian government withdrew the Kashmiri language from Bhasha Sangam, an online portal it had set up to celebrate the “unique symphony of languages of our country”.

Some Kashmiri Pandits had complained that the version of the language on the website was widely used by Muslims, and therefore ignored Hindus, who according to them, speak Kashmiri differently.

“Some Kashmiri Pandits want to assert themselves politically in all matters related to Kashmir in order to settle the tragedy of their exodus,” M K Raina, a Delhi-based theatre director who has worked with Kashmiri artists for decades, told Al Jazeera.

Several Kashmiri Pandits support India’s move to revoke Article 370, the part of the constitution which had given some autonomy to Kashmir for seven decades.

“There could be a cultural aggression by BJP through imposition of Hindi in Kashmir like everywhere else in India,” feared a former director of education in Kashmir, who requested anonymity.

For now, though, Okus-Bokus is making its way to Kashmir’s children.

On the last leg of their journey, granny reaches the final letters of the alphabet.

“Y” is for “yaemberzal”, the fragrant narcissus flower which signals the arrival of spring.

“Will there ever be another spring in Kashmir?” said Faraz Khan, a 19-year-old from Srinagar, as he flipped through the children’s book. “India is the current occupier of Kashmir. It has paralysed us for 70 years.”


[The story appeared in Al Jazeera on 16th September 2019: