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Verve People
April 23, 2019

Entwined Histories: Urshita Saini

Text by Sharanya Deepak. Photographs by Uma Damle

India’s first birth photographer, Urshita Saini, and our foremost female dastangoi artiste, Fouzia Dastango, both embody their home city’s dynamism and cultural eccentricities. Step into Lodhi Garden and a historical haveli, as Verve experiences parts of Delhi that are intrinsically linked with the two women’s lives and the work they were born to do…

Urshita Saini

“It is not easy here — but I love it.”

Urshita Saini is a fast walker. But she says I’ll soon find out that she talks faster than she walks. When I ask her why she does everything with such speed, she looks around indignantly, pointing out the cars that race past us on Lodhi Road, in Delhi’s old central parts. “Do you see where we live? If you don’t move fast here, you don’t move at all.”

It is a winter afternoon when we meet in New Delhi’s Lodhi Garden, a welcome, sunny day after a night of blistering cold. When she gets out of her car, Saini checks her phone quickly and puts it inside her bag as she starts towards the gate of the gardens where we will be walking for the next few hours. “It’s Monday, and we’re here!” she is delighted as schoolchildren run past us, chattering and screaming, pulling each other’s hair in gestures of young friendship. “I love it here, it’s one of my favourite places in the city.”

As we sit down, Saini tells me that she has been up since 4 a.m. “I had a caesarean earlier this morning,” The sun is strong, I am getting tired, but being around Saini helps; her high energy is contagious. When she nonchalantly flips words that are otherwise used in urgency (‘caesarean’, ‘hospital’, ‘birth’), it is easy to be taken aback, but she explains what she does with calculated calm. Saini is India’s first birth photographer, and she spends most of her time in the maternity wards and corridors of hospitals to do what she defines as “capturing the most crucial moment of someone’s life”.

“When I started off, it was madness,” she says now, dusting grass off her tall, leather boots which she calls “glamorous but practical”. “I would hang around in the lobbies of hospitals and when someone came in with a pregnant woman, I approached them to tell them what I wanted to do.” When asked how long this went on for before she got her first assignment, she looks at me quizzically: “Four months?” I was stunned, thinking about her waiting in hospitals for four months every day. “What do you expect? Imagine letting a stranger into a room to click photographs of your newly-born baby. I thought it would take even longer.”

“Look at this,” she continues when we walk inside Sikandar Lodi’s tomb — the most tranquil part in the old gardens, where the grave of the most prestigious king of the Lodi Dynasty lies. “It’s old, and it’s accessible.”

As we sit down in the garden, I look around and feel the same relief that all those born into Delhi’s raving metropolis feel in Lodhi Garden — a space in which we can find fleeting calm. Young couples nuzzle on benches; research students take notes ardently, studying every arch, every brick that forms a part of the city’s rugged history. Saini explains that she knows every nook of Lodhi Garden since she works here on maternity shoots with her clients before they go into labour.

“Blindfold me and I can find my way around,” she challenges me, as I laugh and we get ready to leave. When we do, Saini takes us by her secret route: jumps, shortcuts, studied pathways through trees and secret bridges I have never seen. For 10 minutes, as she bounds across the gardens and looks over at the ducks in the lake, she is nothing but a young girl from Delhi, eager to find for herself a place in the city she calls home.

We sit down for lunch in Soda BottleOpenerWala in Khan Market. Saini has to be in the hospital starting 9 p.m., she tells us. A client is going to have a premature delivery. She is on the phone with her husband, and they talk about the legal forms that come with such work.

“There’s so much consent you have to obtain, so many forms to sign, with the hospital, lawyers, clients. Sahil takes care of all that,” she says. “After he has set it up, I swoop in.” When asked if working with her husband is difficult, whether they find it hard to separate work and home life, she shakes her head. “We do completely different things,” she says. “Besides, in the end, I have the final say. He suggests projects and finds clients, but it is me who has to go into the operation theatre. What happens in there is my call.”

“Are you vegetarian?” I ask her, as she tells me to order for us both. “Never,” she grins, and I order a keema pao and berry pulao for us to share. When our food arrives, she passes all the plates around before she helps herself. She is excited about eating here and thanks the waiters whenever they serve us. She expresses that she loves the sweetness of the pulao and how creamy the meat is. “I don’t drink chai,” she says to me as I ask her if she wants a drink after food. “Or coffee,” she admits. “I never got into those habits.” We sit for some time at the table like old friends who haven’t seen each other in a long time: chuckling about the same things, sharing stories of past romances, Saini doing impressions of people from her neighbourhood in Janakpuri and recounting anecdotes about people she meets at work.

“More than once, while I’m photographing, the mother is concerned about how she is going to look,” she says, about her clients. “It is amazing to watch. She is in labour, giving birth, but she still wants to make sure her husband is doing okay, that she looks good for a photograph.”

“Women, unlike men,” she states more seriously, “can do everything at once.”

Saini lacks the pedantry of young professionals, talking about her career as if it happened to her by chance. I question her about this and she is amused. “Of course it just happened to me, isn’t that how life works? This is not about me, it is about all these babies being born; I am simply the documentarian.” Saini discards all the labels she is tagged with. She is the ‘first birth photographer’ in the country; she is a ‘woman business owner’. These things don’t matter; she is doing what she wants.

“I want to create a community,” she continues, about birth photography. “I am not here to be competitive, I want there to be many of us.”

As we finish up, we talk about Delhi and how it is demonised in the eyes of others. We do, however, agree with some of the stereotypes about the city and concur that it is a hard place in which to live.

“I love that everyone here has a different view on things, that sometimes people are a bit mad. It is as if Delhi challenges me and motivates me at the same time. You understand that right?” she looks at me. “It is not easy here — but I love it.”

When we walk outside, the sun is setting, and she admits that she needs some rest before she goes back to work. “I wonder what kind of night I will have,” she says, as she organises the items in her bag. “I wonder what kind of family it will be.”

Read the second part with Fouzia Dastango here.

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