In Memoriam: One Day in the Life of Syed Ali Shah Geelani — A Photo Series by Sagar Kaul

Sep 5, 2021

Taken in the winter at the beginning of 2015, Sagar Kaul presents 47 photographs documenting the day-to-day life of a man older than the partition. In doing so, Kaul brings to fore a side of Syed Ali Shah Geelani that had not been presented through image before. These visuals serve as an indelible marker of the memory that his loved ones and close associates and friends preserve forevermore. These photographs are published herein “in memoriam” to provide solace to those many in Kashmir and elsewhere who mourn his departure during these trying and difficult times.

There are a multitude of photographs and videos in the media that capture and portray the political and public figure of Syed Ali Shah Geelani. Each one valuable now more than ever, and each one with a specific purpose or intent. Being well-acquainted with such images, videos and media, as an editor and photographer, I decided to capture the most unlikely photographs of the man who had been at the centre of Kashmir’s political life and the subject of multiple press articles, newspaper headlines, and considerable media coverage. Perhaps as an indirect response to such images and media, I embarked on this project to document the daily life of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the man—far away from the public limelight and within the confines and familiar intimacy of his own residence.

The following are only but a small selection of the photographs from this project that took shape at the beginning of 2015 when the winter of 2014 had settled on Kashmir. The meaning attributed to any photograph changes over time or acquires greater weight as time passes. Such is the case with this series of images that show a side of Syed Ali Shah Geelani that only his family, his friends, his close associates—and the wide variety of visitors he attended at his residence—are familiar with.

Only ten out of these forty-seven photographs were earlier published in the public domain (by OurStories.org). At the present time, I take the opportunity to publish the complete series here to share how SAS Geelani carried out his daily routine under enforced seclusion, while being allowed to venture outside and travel only for the purpose of medical treatment. As such, these images serve as an interjection in the countless portrayals of the man through the decades—and I share them here at the service of collective memory and public remembrance.

SAS Geelani offering morning prayers with members of his organisation who work in their office. A long day under house arrest awaits him.

SAS Geelani takes his medications before starting his morning exercise routine.

He listens to BBC Urdu World Service news while stretching his back in anticipation of his morning walk within his personal office that is also his living room.

SAS Geelani, popularly known as "Baeb", begins his morning walk while continuing to listen to BBC Urdu. He maintains absolute focus, moving from one side of the room to the other, while marking the beginning of his two and a half hour exercise routine for the day. In staying active from the moment he awakes, the man in his 80s prepares both physically and mentally to endure yet another day of confinement. This is a routine he has been maintaining since the early times when he had been imprisoned. Now under house arrest, he remains persistent with it.

After his morning walk within the confines of his home office, he begins a workout routine consisting of a series of stretches and breathing exercises. This two-and-a-half-hour routine prepares him for a day of work that includes attending to members of his organisation and visitors who have come to greet him or seek his blessings and advise.

Someone from his office enters and narrates a story about something that involves a comical twist. In response, and quite abruptly, SAS Geelani breaks into laughter in a rare moment that defies the condition of house arrest that he has been confined to in his elderly age.

After exercise, SAS Geelani goes through all the Urdu dailies, reading and taking notes. He keeps a notepad and a pen wherever there is material to be read or studied. He rarely remains idle, and is constantly reading, taking notes and writing through the day when he is not busy with Tehreek-e-Hurriyat work or attending to visitors. This is part of a ritual to stay focussed and to keep his mind constructively engaged and active at all times of the day whenever the situation allows for it.

During a brief pause, he remains pensive and looks right through me and my lens, perhaps reflecting or reminiscing about something with a firm and meditative gaze. Being used to having his photographs taken in the media or in the rare occasion he is allowed to travel for medical reasons, at this point, he has settled into my unusual request to document an entire day of his life, from sunup to sundown.

While he remains in deep thought, I quietly move from one side of the room to the other, to capture his profile from both sides. At this point, he has accepted my presence as part of his quotidian space, relaxing from the cordial attentiveness he offers every guest who enters his house. In this way, I am able to capture these images of him in silent and deep thought, as if I am one more of the people he is used to seeing around the house on a daily basis.

Soon after, he has lunch, consisting of a morsel of three table spoons of rice and chicken cooked without oil or heavy spices, with some curd on the side.

After lunch, he attends to visitors who have come to see him. During my stay in his house, he is hospitable throughout, making sure personally that I've had my breakfast, tea, dinner, and that I have blankets and warm covers during the nighttime in the middle of a cold Kashmiri winter.

Being as it is, I take a small break to go outside for a smoke to the farthest end of the courtyard where SAS Geelani resides, knowing well how he doesn't approve of such activity. Soon after attending to his guests, he walks to the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat office adjacent to his house within the same courtyard. While walking a few steps to the main office, he catches me coming back from my special break. I get a little uneasy but he smiles at me with reassurance, pointing out my persistence in documenting his day, and asking comically, "cze chukha wyni yetti? ("you're still here?"). He puts me at ease instantly as I smile back with a nod.

In the main office, he prays with the members of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat and some visitors who have come to see him. 

He then holds a meeting with the members of Tehreek-e-Hurriyat to discuss internal matters as he prepares to donate property to the organisation.

SAS Geelani interacts with visitors who have come from all over Kashmir. They ask him all sorts of questions and he answers each one, one by one.

SAS Geelani continues to answer the questions by his visitors in the TeH office adjacent to his house.

At the end of this small congregation with his visitors, SAS Geelani makes a solemn prayer as they join in.

As he prepares to leave for the airport for medical treatment (during the only time he is allowed to travel), he speaks to visitors and members from his office who are seeing him off.

On his way out, visitors, members of his family, office and organisation along with a few members of the presswho are taking photos and videosall bid him farewell. While leaving, he receives a phone call informing him that an encounter has taken place in Nowgam. He stops immediately, takes a pause, and makes a prayer.

Upon exiting the shared courtyard to his house and the Hurriyat's office, he attends to visitors while accompanied by members of his family, organisation and the Kashmiri press.

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About the Contributor

Sagar Kaul is the former News Editor for Newzulu International, a crowd-sourced news wire agency based in Paris. Prior to joining Newzulu, he worked with the London-based media agency, Barcroft Media, as a staff photographer and in their editorial department. He had regular assignments documenting human interest stories that have been featured around the world. His photographs and videos have appeared in internationally renowned publications such as the Guardian, Time magazine, Huffington Post, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror, the L.A. Times and the New York Post. His feature on the 'Human trafficking and homeless children of Delhi' was featured in the 2013 Human Trafficking report released by US State Department. Before pursuing his passion for media and photography, he worked for many years with computer and technology companies in Srinagar and Pune. He's a native of Srinagar, Kashmir where he also received his education and the inspiration for his work.