Lalbagh Kella in Old Dhaka is an unfinished but picturesque Moghul fort with surrounding gardens. It was started in 1678 by Prince Azam, son of Emperor Aurangzeb. After the prince was recalled to Delhi, construction continued under governor Shaista Khan. But Khan's daughter Pori Bibi died suddenly, leaving him heartbroken. The half-done project, now deemed inauspicious, was abandoned.
Today, however, the Kella is a well-maintained and popular public attraction. The grounds include Pori Bibi's tomb, a mosque, a residence complex intended for the governor, and barracks for soldiers. These structures share eighteen acres of land with manicured lawns, flowerbeds, flowering shrubs, walkways, fountains and a large pond.
Starting in 2008, I photographed people visiting the Kella for several years. I hoped photographing these happy interactions would reveal something about what it means to be Bangladeshi. Having lived most of my life abroad I was keen to rediscover my roots.
Visitors come here to enjoy the open, outdoor setting in an otherwise crowded city. The Kella is most popular on Friday and Saturday afternoons when there is a long queue at the ticket counter, mostly families and friends groups in a picnic mood.
But you don't go to the Kella just to see. You also come here to be seen. Women wear colourful saris and salwar kameez, hands adorned by henna, flowers on their hair and any number of ornaments on their necks, hair, ears and wrists. Colourful burqa ensembles are worn by some women. Men wear tight jeans, the latest shoes and smart shirts open at the chest. And the children? In one glance you know their outfits were chosen by proud parents.
The first thing visitors do is to make memories in these beautiful surroundings. Some pose for photographs with props – sunglasses, a bandanna, masks in pre-Covid days, perhaps a guitar. Others find a favourite plant and put an arm on a branch or even embracing it. Standing with back to the fort's ancient wall with arms outstretched is another popular pose. Friends line up for group photos on the rooftop of the barracks. Brave ones climb the fort's tall walls and risky ledges for unusual backdrops.
The children have the grandest time of all. Finding open space they run themselves breathless. A girl, having a piece of a lawn all to herself, spins at dizzying speeds, her kameez streaming around her. Another chases dragonflies landing on the flowers. Others scream in delight running down slopes of the mound – perhaps fifteen feet high – east of the barracks. In the flat terrain that is Dhaka and most of the nation fifteen feet can be exciting.
After several years I look through the photographs and ponder what I learned. The innate, almost goofy friendliness of my compatriots, for one thing, but what also strikes me is the closeness of friends of all ages and the utter devotion of parents to children. Perhaps it is the disregard for formalities that leads to a boundless exuberance for all that can be squeezed out of life.
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