National

Pain In Grey: Reminders From The Pandemic

In a world where attention spans are short and news cycles are relentless, here are snapshots from India’s migrant crisis from 2020 that we must never forget

A construction worker in Tardeo, Mumbai
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Walking with torn slippers in their hands, when migrant workers started going back to their home states in search of ‘life’ after the COVID lockdown was announced in March 2020, the only thing that drove them was ‘hope’. I followed them across the railway tracks, mostly through Bihar.

Their bruised legs, tired of walking a thousand miles pushed me to capture moments of unprecedented struggle. But what is the colour of pain? Isn’t it grey? I couldn’t find colours among the people who were walking back. It was all black and white. I couldn’t add colours or festivity to it. So, the frames in black and white came up to show their colourless journey.

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A close-up of a migrant worker walking back home along a railway track Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi

While following the people through their journey, I witnessed their angst. Their injured feet captured by my camera become a metaphor for the struggle they have been through. It made me take  close-up shots that represented the unbearable realities of the walk.

I started clicking photos of migrants around 2003. While I was on an assignment in Mumbai, I found a man being held upside down by two others in the railway station. He was cleaning a manhole. The inhuman brutality of this work drove me to think of their lives. It was bizarre. That photo went viral and Human Rights Watch took it up and issued a notice to the railways, asking them to stop manual cleaning of manholes.

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Staying Afloat: Migrant workers heading to work by boat on the Sone river in Koilwar, Bihar Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi

The recent film Bheed, where I worked as the creative photographer (stills), didn’t use original shots; most of them were recreated based on real events. For using original shots, we need their consent. It is a recreation of those original scenes that disturbed the comfort of our middle-class lives.

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A young migrant worker tracing a railway track back home to Muzaffarpur during the lockdown Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi
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Pedalling To Work: A migrant worker in Lucknow Photo: Neeraj Priyadarshi

The black and white frames of women walking through the tracks with a sack, or a man looking at the unending river display the uncertainty of an inconclusive journey. The journey may end sometime but the colour of pain will stay—perhaps through these frames—in grey.

(As told to Abhik Bhattacharya)

(This appeared in the print edition as "Pain in Grey")

Neeraj Priyadarshi is a photojournalist who shot the posters and creative stills for Anubhav sinha’s bheed in black and white

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