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Dilruba Khanam, Photographer

January 22, 2011
by the gentle author

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

Chatna, Model

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.

George Galloway in Whitechapel, 2009.

Dilruba Khanam

Photographs copyright © Dilruba Khanam

8 Responses leave one →
  1. January 22, 2011

    An amazing story.

  2. January 22, 2011

    A strong woman.

  3. sarah ainslie permalink
    January 23, 2011

    Would love to see more of your photographs. and the colours are amazing.

  4. Mohsin permalink
    January 24, 2011

    Very intresting work. Exciting photography lot of variety and mixture. Wish you all the best with your work. We would like to see more of your work on display.

  5. April 30, 2011

    SUBRATA BISWAS : Magic Icon of Bangladesh -
    Nothing seems impossible in the world of Magic. Sword penetrates body of a person still living him alive, Electric Saw dissects the body of a girl and again she is intact, girl floats up in the air, bird or flower appears out of now where, tongue is separated or neck chopped by guillotine but no physical harm is in fact done. People love Magic because that shows them in front of their eyes what they think impossible. It takes them to the universe of fantasy creating an illusion of reality. It once happened that a magician transformed some pieces of bricks into gold. After the show one woman burst out in tears and requested the magician to give her some golden pieces of bricks which she would pay as dowry to her would be son-in-law. The incident is embarrassing on one hand enlightening on the other. Dowry in marriage is a major social problem in our country which asks an urgent solution. The magician whose tricks sounded so real, as described in the previous paragraph, was none other than – Magician Subrata Biswas. He was born in 10th January 1970 at Dhaka, Bangladesh. Subrata is the leading magic prodigies who gave his wonderful magic performance all over the country and abroad with grand success and his magic show has been highly praised by the press, public, electronic media and distinguished people of the society. The specialty of Mr. Subrata as a magician is that he always speaks about our society by magic. When he turns a black feather into white he just points out to the fact that the discrimination between the white and black skin is baseless and unjustified. Another attribute of Subrata’s magic is that he likes to present his tricks in a humorous way. He has developed some techniques of presentation which is mixed with comedy. Subrata is one of the most talented magicians of our country today. It is love and dedication to magic which prompted him to take it up seriously. Subrata started magic in 1980 through firstly Mr. Shaheen, then Mr. Ulfat Kabir & lastly Magic Guru, Mr. Jewel Aich. He completed home study course on magic from Chavez Magic School (USA) under Dale Salwak. He is now the member of many reputed institutions e.g. Singapore Magician Club, British Magical Society, London Magic Circle, The Academy of Magical Arts (USA), International Brotherhood of Magicians (USA) & International Magicians Society (IMS), USA. Magic is an art which is based on the theories of science. There is nothing supernatural in it. Subrata throws challenge to those claim supernatural power. He says if any body can prove it, I will give him one lakh taka. Subrata has got some special tricks in his receptacle. The most famous one is Buriganga Escape Illusion. In this trick he is locked in a box and splashed into Buriganga. He would get out of it in five seconds and another is Bijoy Sharani or Sangshad Bhaban disappear a entire day ! Subrata has showed magic in many countries including India, Nepal, Singapore, China several times. He has so far performed magic in about 1000 shows. It is often in newspaper ads that some magician would teach magic in five days or one week. According to Subrata these are all deception. He said, they are inexperienced and uneducated magicians and do so only to earn money in an unfair way. Magic is the blend of science and art which takes a long time to master. International Brotherhood of Magicians (USA) invites magicians every year to their annual convention from all over the world. But many of our magicians abused the opportunity taking people with them and dropping them in USA. And it was yielded great problem for the professionals here. Subrata regretted, we now get invitation from USA, but don’t get visa, because the people in American Embassy cannot put trust on us. They reject us on the ground of previous record that the magicians or their companions did not come back to Bangladesh. The stalemate should be resolved for the sake of development of our magic industry. Benevolence is what stirs a noble heart, Subrata has decided to donate his eyes and other organs to be used for medical research after his death. He is also working for the rehabilitation of drug addicts. Subrata believes magic for humanity. In 1988 devastating flood in our country, he arranged charity shows and collected Tk. 30,000 for the distressed people. He won the best magician award from New York Magic Academy in 1994, Dhaka Television Reporter’s Association (TRAB) of Bangladesh award and Antora Sanjit Academy in 2002, Sher-e-Bangla Performance award in 2003, Bangabir Osmani Smrity award, Bhashani Smrity Award and B C A Sharbachha award in 2004 etc. The Magic of our country has much reputation outside. Subrata aspires to further develop the art of magic and uphold the position of Bangladesh in the realm of World Magic. (Magician Subrata Biswas, M.com & MBA, e-mail: subratabiswas2003@yahoo.com,
    M: 01711336559, Makbul Market, 1st Floor, Barisal-8200, Bangladesh.)
    visit : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIZM4ncp_j0

  6. July 19, 2012

    BMS(Bangladesh Magic School) CEO , Magician A K SHAH provide Famous Magician, in BD. Tom & Jerry, Videos Mekey-mouse, potulnatch, Horse, Clown, Snakdencer, Teyapaky, Jampingped, Monkey, Bioskop, projector and Lighting Solutions .For Corporate Events, Weddings, School Show, Birthday Parties, Children day, Ad. Film maker, Publisher & more. If you Know anyone who may be interested, Please to book, Magician A K SHAH for your next Event, Cell + 088 01711 037626 Pls visit -
    http://akshah.yolasite.com
    http://www.facebook.com/BmsBangladeshMagicSchool?bookmark_t=page

  7. Habiba Begum permalink
    September 30, 2013

    Your article brings back feelings of nostalgia – not sure why because this woman is before my generation, but maybe it’s something to do with growing up in Brick Lane in the 90s and having to forge your own path against certain patriarchal attitudes. Times have changed a lot, but that picture of the bride takes me back to those days when a lot of the young girls, my friends, were being married off in their teens. I guess you always look back in a rose-tinted sort of way; the grimy gritty poverty wasn’t that bad. And the other thing is, you still feel like you’re in a fishbowl because there are these white middle class powsh folk interested in our exotic poor lives.

  8. SHAIKAT BHUIYAN permalink
    October 25, 2016

    you are pride of your country. It’s really awesome.Thank you so much
    FROM NARSINGDI ,DHAKA, BANGLADESH.

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