Opinions differ on the political trajectory of Bangladesh and whether it is at the cusp of a steep economic rise. The economic successes have been marred by industrial disasters. Developmental gains have been accompanied by claims of corruption and questionable elections. In the field of culture, however, there has been an undeniable shift. The Bengal Music Festival, the Dhaka Art Summit, the Dhaka Lit Fest and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography are major international events that have firmly placed Bangladesh on the world cultural map. While these have been spearheaded by individual champions who have swum against the tide to hold on to a level of excellence that continues to surprise, it is in the field of photography, that by far the most significant gains have taken place. Bangladesh is known for one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Work by young Bangladeshi photographers regularly top the international award lists. Chobi Mela is amongst the most respected photo festivals.
This photo essay is a body of work that was a turning point in photographic practice in the country. It was a distinct shift from the single image that had characterised previous work. It is a personal story, produced over a period of several years, which examined a social phenomenon to a depth that had not been attempted before in Bangladesh. The combination of the social, the personal and the political made it not only a springboard for the vast amount of high quality documentary photography that has followed since, but also makes it a unique anthropological and artistic study of a socio political phenomenon, that has rarely been attempted in other fields.
The photo essay was initiated during the resistance to the rule of autocratic general Hossain Mohammad Ershad. The early part of the work, which is shown here, was produced between 1987 and 1991. The open letter to the Prime Minister, written in 1992, relates to the ongoing tussle between a state’s attempt to control and the public’s desire for freedom.
The work records events since the 10th November 1987; Dhaka Siege Day. The people had united in a stand to overthrow the autocratic regime of General Ershad. A young worker, Nur Hossain, led one of the rallies. He had painted on his chest “Let Democracy Live.” He was the first of many who were killed by the police in the movement. The sequence of events, over the backdrop of the everyday lives of people, is documented. The floods, opulent weddings, mourners at the martyr’s memorial, unrest in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, rejoicing at Ershad’s departure, and the election.
Motijheel, the commercial district of Dhaka was the most important street in the capital city. As opposition announced a siege of Dhaka City on the 10th November 1987, the government imposed Section 144, which prevents the gathering of five or more persons, in an effort to contain the siege.
Skirmishes soon broke out between protestors and police at Paltan Mor, one of the areas of key confrontation.