Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Back Story | Bilal, The Callused Punkawallah

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved (click to enlarge)

Although my travel photography style is not for stock, and is more akin to photojournalism, I still like to make posed portraits... some are environmental and others just straight forward, especially of those I encounter who make interesting stories.

Bilal is one of such people. I met him in the dargah of Nizzm Uddin in Delhi where he earns a living as a punkawallah, fanning the devotees to provide comfort during the summer days while they pray or listen to the periodic qawwali. I hadn't seen him before on my regular trips to Nizzam Uddin...so perhaps he's a newcomer.

Punkawallah in Hindi means 'the man with a fan', but I'm not sure if it's the precise appellation for Bilal's profession as he works in a Muslim shrine. It may well be, but perhaps it's different in Urdu.

Bilal has the telltale callus of a pious Muslim on his forehead...in fact, he has two of such calluses from genuflecting on the ground when praying five times a day, instead of the customary single callus. This is perhaps due to his facial bone structure. These marks are colloquially called the Muslim "bump"and are highly desirable signs of piety amongst Muslim men.

It's so desirable among observant Egyptian Muslims that there are rumors that irritants, like sandpaper, are used to darken the callus.

But back to Bilal...despite his serious expression, he was all smiles and assured me we'd meet in Ajmer during Ghairb Nawaz's Urs in a few weeks. All that in sign language. and a word or two of Hindi on my part.

I did meet him again inside the shrine in Ajmer, where we greeted each other like old friends. With the throngs of people milling about,  he quickly grew very business-like, unfurled his flag-like fan, and started to do his punka'ing...and hustling to get paid.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved


For those interested in tech stuff: the top photograph was made with a Leica M9 and a Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f 1.4, and processed with Color Efex Pro 4, while the lower one was made with a Fuji XPro1 and a Fujinon 18mm f 2.0.