Masood Sarwer /India

                                                                                                                                                                          ver en español          Burning both ends

Last year Khatun dropped out of school and now she starts her day by putting tobacco flakes inside tendu leaves which are cut into small rectangular pieces and rolls it down with a yarn tied over it, securing it tightly and tucks its one end with a small iron rod to make one beedi. She rolls 1000 sticks of beedi, rocking back and forth for 12-14 hours a day to earn a partial sum of less than 2 dollars.

She often complains of having pain in her back due to sitting several hours at a stretch in the same position, but the pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target is so intense that many of them have to skip their meals and even avoid drinking water, so they do not need to go to the toilet.

It's a story of every young girl in Murshidabad district of West Bengal state in India. who are seen rolling beedi from dark dingy rooms to open spaces making it India's largest centre for beedi rollers.

Mothers teach their daughters the art of rolling beedi from the age of 5 and before puberty, girls gain mastery over rolling beedi. Most of the beedi workers admit their children to school, but a majority of girls are pulled out of education by the time they complete primary school to support their family's income.

Families encourage girls to roll beedi, this ensures them a good marriage and if not married then she still continues to be an earning member. Is this what is desired for children? Where are the rights of the child? Is economic value the only value of the girl?

Around 1.7 million children are engaged in India's beedi industry.

Nowadays girls from an age as early as three have started taking beedi rolling as a game, cutting their notebook papers to make paper beedi. Girls are continuously exposed to tobacco due to which they suffer from Tuberculosis, asthma & burning of the eyes along with frequent chest pain, cough, headaches and respiratory problems.

Beedi rolling has come to its peak point where it's taking a turn from a need to a culture which is performed in every house of Murshidabad, where beedi rollers have increased from being 0.4 million (2003) to 1.1 million in 2016. Out of which 90% of them are females working in their homes.

Their stories are widely untold and often overlooked with ignorance. They are cheated out of play, education and health, effectively denied a childhood and it's a fate of every girl here.

©Masood Sarwer

Curator's Statement:

"Burning both Ends" deals with life of women and children Beedi rollers who come from very poor backgrounds. Murshidabad is a quite an under developed town of the eastern state of West Bengal. One of the states that is struggling economically and for a political stability in various ways.

While most men could be leaving their families behind, in search of manual labour jobs in larger cities and struggling to fight the exploitation in the urban world, their women folks would be exploited by the local bustling and exploitative tobacco industry of Beedi making . This industry might give them a very small daily survival, but in the long run, it is a slow death towards their physical and mental health. They have to work long hours, their children get swallowed into the trap, regardless of the harm and an uncertain future.

Masood who is a native and a young photographer from Murshidabad, has been exploring the world of this community and their struggles for survival as well as their search towards a hope of a more equal human world. His images in black and white are a testimony of these lives. These stark visuals are somewhat voyeuristic, yet it seems like Masood and the community have found a comfort within each others company to bring us this story together.

©Sandeep Biswas

Masood Sarwer is a visual artist and a documentary photographer born and raised in India.

He practices long-term, in-depth projects and spends most of his time documenting largely issues revolving around ecology to social structures and the contemporary issues in the Murshidabad district region where he grew up and is intimately familiar with.

His artistic practice centres around the tensions surrounding identity, gender, human rights, and climate emergency and is currently exploring the world of his community and their struggles for survival as well as their search towards the hope of a more equal human world.

The constant negotiation with his artistic practice has allowed his work to pass through a wide range of spectrums illuminating stories & micro-disasters within his region and communities.

His work is a collaboration with the locals through which he tries to explore, understand and seek the nuances of the issues, using photography as a medium to evoke emotions & "giving voice to the marginalized to share stories which have the power to question.

His approach to slow documentation highlights the intrinsic complexities of social and contemporary issues.

Recently he got selected for the Eddie Adams Workshop XXXIII where he won "The Jim Dietz Scholarship" and he was one of the finalists at the student Alexia Grant 2020. He was nominated for the 6x6 Global Talent Award (Asia), World Press Photo. He also has received a scholarship from VII Academy to attend photojournalism and documentary photography with Christopher Morris. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally.

In 2018, he won the scholarship to attend Foundry Photojournalism Workshop and was awarded the Foundry Golden Scarf.

In 2018, he was the photographic assistant over a year for the National Geographic assignment where he assisted photographer Smita Sharma on the story of trafficking girls into sexual slavery "Stolen Lives".

His work has been published in the Indian daily newspaper - The Hindu, National Geographic Traveller Magazine India, VII Academy, FirstPost, NEWS9, Creative Image Magazine, Vasa Project, and Youth Ki Awaaz (online).

He is a faculty member of the Grayscale - Academy of Photography and Creative Vision.