As one of my first projects after taking up photography, I embarked on a series of portraits at a destitute shelter in Hennur, on the outskirts of Bangalore. I was studying the phenomenon of families falling apartin an urban context and how 60-year-olds, weak and ill, were disowned by their middle class families and turned homeless. During my hour long, early morning commute from home to this shelter I used to pass by a recurring dramatic scene in the distance- smoke spewing out of filthy, bog-like landscape, the stench ofwhich travelled out to the main road, at least 300 meters away. I also saw the faraway, tiny figures of people with masked faces working in this environment, using what I thought were pick-axes. I decided to investigate.
I soon started visiting this community here and found stories that I did not quite expect to hear. They are a small community of ragi (finger millet) farmers who have been turned into rag-pickers, a change that happened over the last decade and half. I worked with them between 2007 and 2008, for a period of ten months,visiting them at least twice a week. They work in a dump yard which was created out of farmland, most of which was sold off to builders. Whatever was left was made into a make-shift land fill by lorry contractors who did not want to travel all the way to the municipal corporation- designated landfills which were much further off from the city. They save on fuel this way, and make money.
The women of Kyalsanahalli first started scavenging in the landfill as they saw an opportunity. They set fire to the garbage to burn away the organic filth and expose scrap metal and other saleables that survived the fire. They work for about six hours every day and earn about Rs.150 to 200. Their children, although many of them are in school, lend help whenever they can. The men come here sporadically, whenever they get a break from the manual labour jobs that they are mostly occupied with.
I realised over time that despite the nature of their work and the hazardous environment (many of them fall prey to lung diseases and fire-related accidents) – they are quite cheerful people. I got acquainted with Anjanamma, a 30-year-old woman who had got married when she was just 12, and had had a child which died soon after it was born. She now stays with her mother and sister and her children since her husband left her to marry another. Anjanamma was warmest of all the people I met at the landfill, readily willing to share every little detail of her life with me over tea and biscuits and accepting me whole heartedly in her environment. She was quite content,proud of raising her family after her husband went absconding a few years ago. For her and her co-workers at the landfill, breaks often meant chewing pan, sharing jokes and gossiping about relatives. On weekends they go to a small chapel close by, where they enjoy prayers and musical sessions. Soon after they started working in the landfill,they experienced a certain exclusion from the rest of the society that lived–they would no longer get jobs as housemaids because they were considered “dirty”. They were stared at when they entered temples. But the chapel is more welcoming, they’ve told me, and they enjoy spiritual bliss this way although itisn’t they native religion.In June this year I visited Anjanamma for the first time in two years. She says things have changed. Rumour has it that the landfill site has been sold to a politician. The dumping ground is used less, as there are now more residents living in Kyalasanahalli, who want the landfills to be moved further afield. With less scrap, there is less money to be made and the scrap metal buyers have also dropped off. But Kyalasanahalli’s women neo-farmers are now starting to find other means of living as labourers, workers in garment factories and as housemaids in homes on the other side of the expanding city.
A worker stands over a pile of garbage at the Kyalsanahalli landfill.
At dawn, the dogs at the landfill.
The smoke of the burning garbage engulfs the landfill.
Portrait of a worker at Kyalsanahalli.
The feet of a worker, bearing marks of a recent accident.
Worker at the landfill.
Anjanamma at the landfill.
Taking time off from work.
A family share a moment at the landfill.
Worker at the landfill.
At Anjanamma’s home.
Carcass of a dog at the landfill.
Dawn, at the landfill.
Workers at the landfill.
Returning home with the day’s gathering.
The Sunday Chapel.
Vivek Muthuramalingam is a Bangalore-based independent documentary and editorial photographer. He works on issues related to health,occupation and social disparities. In his personal body of work he explores the deep and intimate relationship that he shares with the city that he inhabits.He credits most of his learning to the workshops at Angkor Photo Festival (2007),Foundry (2009) and the Goethe, India supported ones (2007, 2011). Streetphotography is what he immensely enjoys when he is not preoccupied with his assignments.