A Place I Never Knew

  • Dates
    2017 - Ongoing
  • Author
  • Locations India, Uttar Pradesh

This project explores a Muslim-majority city in India, my family’s ancestral home. It looks at the city’s storied past, plays with the Indian-style portraiture popular during the pre-world war era.

(Captions available on request.)

For this series, I traveled to one of the last Muslim-ruled princely states in India, also my family’s ancestral home.

Rampur is a small city four hours north of Delhi that many Indians have never heard of. A well-constructed highway loops around the city, which means travelers on their way to more popular destinations need not stop. And why would they?

The city has the highest Muslim population in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and poorest state. According to the 2011 census, just half Rampur’s 2.3 million residents can read. Last year, The Times of India deemed it India’s “filthiest city.”

The city has seen better times. But it has also seen worse. Rampur’s former rulers, called Nawabs, constructed palaces, mosques, and a fort. The Nawabs valued culture: They hired chefs who created a courtly cuisine. They cultivated music, collected books, and listened to poetry. They also ruled with clenched fists, ready to punish those who dared defy them — and also those who did not. My grandfather, head physician to Nawab Raza Ali Khan, was sent to London to continue his medical studies. Later, he was banished.

My father was born and raised in London, and I was born and raised in Boston. For this project, I returned to India to discover a city, culture, and country that I never knew. My family’s ties to the city intrigued me. I visited my uncle, who still lives in the family home. I read early 20th century texts and learned that Pathans, my family’s ethnic lineage, were considered a warrior race, admired by Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill. By others, they were vilified.

My photographs explore the city’s architecture, and play with the formality of Indian-style portraiture popular during the pre-world war era. This series looks at the city’s history, and also its present: During my visit, I observed a young parkour team who bridges this temporal divide by doing flips atop crumbling palaces.

Recognizing the city’s history seems important now, as Muslims struggle under the shadow of Hindu nationalism. Here, Hindus and Muslims have always lived together peacefully — even when violence ripped through the country during Partition in 1947. While riots in Delhi continue to kill indiscriminately, this city, for the moment, remains quiet.

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