Portrait of a Beggar


I was in Perugia over the last weekend. IdV had highly recommended going to the SteveMcCurry (of the Afghan girl fame) exhibition and I found myself in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, looking awestruck not only at the poignant photographs but also at the stories etched in those photographs. One picture was that of a beggar girl in Mumbai holding a baby, looking plaintively inside a car from where the picture was obviously taken, even as it rained outside.

Now I’ve lived in Delhi for ten years where I must have come across beggars almost everyday. I also belong to the school of thought that strongly discourages patronizing beggars! So, not only was I immune to beggars but also highly disapproving of the whole racket. So why did I feel a sense of unease upon looking at the photo? IdV also felt the same. But she’s also from The Netherlands, where poverty is oh well something just heard of, and not an in-your-face reality like in India.

I made a list of reasons and crossed them off on giving them due thought. No it wasn’t because she had a baby straddled around her waist, adding to the sense of pathos. No, it wasn’t because she had an expression that showed sorrow, resignation and complete subservience to another human being.

IdV suggested that maybe it was her palm resting on the windowpane, the lines clearly visible, that made it seem so close and real. I’ve pondered over that thought a bit, and I agree to an extent. However, the closest I can come to is that the photo reflects the callousness on the part of the viewer. Here I was looking at the photo in the comfort of a gallery in a picturesque little town in Italy, while the beggar and her daughter got soaked in the rain hoping that an appropriate expression on their faces would get them a few coins. Instead, the photographer and hence the viewer sat in comfort inside the possibly air-conditioned car, safe from the pouring rain, and snapped pictures of that expression. Or maybe, like me, wrote a blog on that beggar girl, wondering if she or her baby are still alive.

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