For seven years, Mobeen Ansari ventured into far-off valleys, visited remote villages and explored bustling cities to photograph a side of Pakistan that is rarely seen – its religious diversity. Travelling across the country's four provinces – Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh – Ansari became both observer and insider, capturing the public and private spaces in which Parsis, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, among others, worship and live. In 2017, the photojournalist and Islamabad resident's work culminated in the release of his book White in the Flag by Markings Publishing.
These images are now part of Ansari's first solo exhibitions in the UAE. As well as taking part in this year's Xposure photography festival in Sharjah, his Conversations through Centuries is at Dubai's Studio Seven gallery until Saturday. The show travels to Abu Dhabi's Etihad Modern Art Gallery on Monday.
White in the Flag, or rather the idea behind it, started in college, when Ansari was studying art in Rawalpindi. Surrounded by the various Hindu and Sikh temples that were built before the partition of India, along with a handful of churches and an old synagogue, he became interested in documenting these spaces, which had largely been abandoned, and the communities tied to them. Pakistan's religious minorities account for a small percentage of the population, a little below 4 per cent, while the rest is Muslim. Leafing through Ansari's book, you can see how diverse this sliver of society can be – Presbyterian devotees and Zoroastrian priests in Karachi, Catholic nuns in Lahore, Baha'i prayer groups in Islamabad, Sikh pilgrims in Hasan Abdal. Colours and lights fill the festivities for religious occasions such as Diwali, Easter, Nowruz and Chilam Joshi.
"Most of this was possible because of my friends belonging to different faiths, who very kindly took me to their places of worship and welcomed me to their festivals," he says. Most of Ansari's trips for the project were self-funded, though he would also find people to photograph when he was sent on photojournalism assignments. Even with strangers he does not recall any difficulty in taking the images he sought. "There were no differences, tense moments or any miscommunication. Instead, friends and bonds were created."
He gives glimpses of everyday life that offer a more intimate look at these communities, such as his monochromatic image of Sikh children washing plates at a “langar”, a community kitchen where visitors of all castes and religions can receive a free vegetarian meal, or his cinematic photo of a Parsi host washing a guest’s hand with rose water during Nowruz, Zoroastrian New Year.
For Ansari, religious acceptance had always been part of his family’s values. Before he was born, his father almost died after complications during surgery caused massive blood loss. His Christian friend donated two bags of his own blood, saving his father’s life. The family friend or “Uncle Ronny”, as Ansari and his brothers call him, would take them to Christmas parties and Easter Mass while they were growing up.
His grandmother was also a model for open-mindedness. “Her only best friend in life was a Zoroastrian, and she often spoke fondly of her,” he says, adding that she also inspired his artistic endeavours. “My grandmother shaped my life. She lived her life to the fullest and pursued all her passions. She painted, did photography and was a floral artist. She even attained a PhD in her eighties.”
When he was young, Ansari lost his hearing after catching meningitis. “I believe that it instilled more curiosity in me and more of a drive to understand people and places,” he says. He remembers sketching and making sculptures at an early age, but says “photography is my most honest mode of expression”.
Some of his most memorable images from White in the Flag are those of the Kalasha people who live in the Chitral district and Kalasha valleys close to Afghanistan. Their origins are a mystery, and they practise a form of animism fused with Pagan and Hindu beliefs.
Ansari shares his experience of photographing Bibi Kai Kalash, a hotel owner who has become famous in the province because of her striking green eyes. Not knowing where she lived, he showed a picture of her to villagers, who then accompanied him to her house. He remembers thinking of her as "larger than life", and has been photographing her for years since. "Now she has adopted me as a grandson," he says. The photographer has also attended the Kalashas's religious celebrations, including Chowmos – or Choimus – a 10-day winter festival. The celebrations start at night, when temperatures often dip below zero. Bonfires are lit and chants repeated as the Kalasha, dressed in their vibrant garb, wait for the spirit of the demigod Balomain to pass through the valley, collecting prayers along the way.
While Ansari's images reveal the pockets of diversity in Pakistan, they also document populations in decline.
Before partition tore the country apart in 1947, for example, 1,000 to 1,500 Jews lived in Karachi. Since then, there has been an exodus from the country because of discrimination. Scant evidence of their presence is left, though a few Star of David symbols remain engraved on buildings, suggesting they were once used as synagogues.
Meanwhile, lower birth rates, rules on intermarriage and migration to western countries have affected the Parsi population, which fled east from Persia in the 7th century. Concentrated in Karachi, the community's numbers have fallen to 1,700 in 2012 from 7,000 several decades before. "I wanted to celebrate [minority communities] as a vibrant fabric of society and give that narrative through the images," Ansari says.
While he acknowledges the dwindling figures and its future impact on Pakistan’s demographics, he notes that his focus has always been to highlight the individuals who thrive in these communities today. “A major part of me feels sad to be aware of this, but at the same time it is what drives me to continue doing this project, beyond the book,” he says. “There is much I have yet to photograph.”