In September, with the world largely stilled, two women began a crowdsourced travelogue online, inviting photographs from people that best captured a south Asian city that they loved.
Having conducted a quick poll to see which cities generated the most interest, Onaiza Drabu, 30, a digital consultant from Srinagar, and Prachi Jha, 33, who runs a science education NGO in Geneva, invited images from Bengaluru, Delhi, Dhaka, Kabul, Kolkata, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta, Rangoon, Srinagar and Varanasi.
The cities project was an extension of a cultural preservation project called Daak Vaak (Hindi for Post & Talk) launched by the women in 2017. It started out as a newsletter on historic authors from south Asia. With over 70,000 followers on Instagram, @daakvaak continues to curate information about literary figures and share nuggets from their work. But in the pandemic, “we started the cities project as a way to travel virtually, given that hardly anyone could travel during the pandemic,” Drabu says.
Some people sent in photos of cities they had lived in, others of cities they had travelled to and loved. “The idea was to see how people capture a city they love or feel nostalgic about,” Jha says.
Trisha Vaishnav, 22, a Master’s student from Chhattisgarh, says the first city she thought of when she saw the post on Instagram was Varanasi. She spent her undergraduate years there, studying at Banaras Hindu University. She’d be there right now, studying for her MA in class instead of virtually, if not for the pandemic.
“Varanasi’s beauty is something that I find difficult to convey to people. There’s a lot of soul in its old narrow lanes and at its ghats,” she says.
Her image is one that looks at the ghats of Varanasi from the opposite bank of the Ganga, a sort of flip side of the usual sunset photographs taken here. It reminds her, she says, of hidden histories and lost time.
Other posts — the photos have been shared mainly as Instagram Stories — have showcased a glimpse of Quetta, hidden heritage gems from Lahore, a colonial cemetery in Kolkata, the skyline of Kabul and the ever-changing one of Mumbai.
For people who will likely never see Kabul or Quetta, the Stories offer a glimpse of how it looked on a recent afternoon. For those who have known and loved Mumbai, the Instagram post was a glimpse into the ways in which it is changing.
“The series is now an eclectic mix of ways in which people see and long for a place,” Jha says.
There’s a larger idea to the crowdsourced photographs, and that came from a project conceived of by a Pakistani art collective called Mandarjazail in 2018 and extended to include Daak Vaak. It is called Separations Geography, and has multiple artist pairs from India and Pakistan working on art projects that explore what it is like to live in a region with tight borders but very similar people on both sides of the lines.
Drabu’s part in Separations Geography is a series of layered archival images from her impressions of Lahore. “Basically, we were one people, with the borders being created only in the last century,” she says.