Dilruba Khanam, Photographer
This photograph by Dilruba Khanam of a Bengali bride in East London fascinates me with its unlikely combination of lyrical and urban realist elements. The bride in her luxuriant wedding clothes sitting beneath a tree might be an image from a classical miniature painting, if it were not for the satellite dish and the car – which place the picture precisely in the here and now. And when Dilruba told me her principal subjects were fashion and politics, it confirmed the source of the dynamic tension that enlivens this extraordinary image. Yet when Dilruba told me her story, I realised that as much as it reflects aesthetic choices, her remarkable sensibility is the outcome of her own struggle to wrestle freedom from the tyranny of circumstance.
Growing up in a high-ranking Muslim family in Bangladesh, Dilruba acquired a vivid knowledge of politics through personal experience. “The head of my family had supreme authority, and women were not even allowed to go out.” she admitted to me when I visited her in Mile End last week,“There was a separate conference room for the men where the newspapers were kept and females were not allowed to enter, but I would secretly go there and read them. I was the first female to break the rules, because I could not tolerate any injustice to women and I wanted to fight against it. As a young girl, I knew many politicians closely and I had seen their dirty politics and corruption, and I did not like it.”
At sixteen years old, Dilruba left home and went to live in the YWCA. “It was difficult for me to survive without family support,” she revealed in unsentimental reminiscence,“I was desperate to find a job, and I went from office to office asking. At that time, I had long hair and I was good looking, and I saw their dirty thinking about me, so I realised I had to protect myself. I cut my hair short and me and my best friend Javine – who was the first professional female magician in Bangladesh – we got training in judo, karate and shooting guns.” At first, Dilruba pursued athletics but it was photography that became her career. Once she had some training, Dilruba won freelance commissions from newspapers in Dhaka and became Bangladesh’s first professional female photographer, covering politics and fashion. One day, when Audrey Hepburn came to Bangladesh, Dilruba went along to take photographs of a star who herself once portrayed a certain youthful independence. But events took an ironic twist when the other photojournalists, who were all male, took pictures of Dilruba with her short hair and Western casual clothes, making her first prominent public appearance as a professional photographer – which ended upon the front pages of the national newspapers next day instead of Audrey Hepburn. An unexpected turn of events, but one – I like to think – that Audrey would have savoured with amusement.
Thus, Dilruba came to the attention of Rowshan Ershad, First Lady of Bangladesh and wife of President Ershad, who extended her personal support, appointing Dilruba as her official photographer upon all engagements for the next two years. And, almost like fairy tale, a whole new world of success opened up in which Dilruba was invited to Bollywood to photograph the stars, becoming accepted into the world of celebrities, singers, dancers, actors and models who took her as an equal and in many cases as a friend. Yet Dilruba could never forget the wider political picture, and when students at Dhaka University protesting against the ruling party were beaten up, she found that as a woman photographer she alone was able to get into the hospital to photograph their injuries.
Through her own courage and talent, Dilruba had achieved what no woman had done before in Bangladesh, forging a career as a photographer, but she realised that she could never be at peace there. Using the mobility that her professional status gave her she came to London. “First of all, I came to see the difference, and I found this is the place I want to live – because this is a free country.” she explained with a smile of quiet relief, ” I brought my camera with me and I started working with a Bengali newspaper here. Then I published my own glossy magazine ‘Elegant,’ and I stated my own modelling agency with a mixture of Asian and European models.”
“My family apologised to me,” she confided frankly, “when they realised I had done well and the newspapers wrote good things about me, but it was too late. I went through a lot of pain and hardship, and when I needed them most, I was all alone. So I can’t forgive and forget.”
Today, Dilruba Khanam is happy to live a relatively low-profile life in the East End, concentrating on the subjects of her photography rather than becoming a subject herself – but there is an intensity in her portraits of women, a detachment in her pictures of politicians, and a frequent use of passionate flaming reds, that – in different ways – all speak of the challenges she overcame on her journey to get here.
Dilruba as a teenage rebel in a Bangladeshi policeman’s hat.
Azra Javine, the first female magician in Bangladesh with Dilruba the first female photographer in Bangladesh, 1987.
Dilruba with her patron Rowshan Ershad, First Lady of Bangladesh
President Ershad of Bangladesh.
Dilruba with Audrey Hepburn in Bangladesh, 1989.
A famous dancer from Bangladesh.
Lata, TV Star
Nasrin Hussain Hema, choreographer.
Shabnoor, Film Star
Celebrating Boishakhi, 2000
A student of Dhaka University beaten with chains by the Jatiotabadi Chattra Dal (the student front of the Bangladeshi National Party), 1988.
Yet another bruised girl of Dhaka University, 1988.
John Major in Brick Lane, 1995.
Photographs copyright © Dilruba Khanam