Book Review- Unsung—Extraordinary Lives: Mahesh Bhat


Unsung— Extraordinary Lives

K MadhavanPillai discovers a wonderfully inspiring book that may well become a collectible in time to come.

India… Land of a million histories and billions of happenstances, seething with an unimaginable mass of humanity, churning through the mechanisms of society, economy, religion, community. We see the throes of survival, oft for just one more day. And among them, those who live seemingly ordinary lives, extraordinarily. Who amidst us have not witnessed heroes, perhaps in our own families and circles? These are people who move through life with the courage of their convictions—men and women of spirit who use their mind and beings to tread uncommon paths, to overcome fearful odds, to fight decadence, corruption and injustice, and to keep going on regardless of circumstances. Or, simply, those who do their duty over years and decades, because it is important and right—unknown and unsung, because work is its own reward. What do their faces and bodies look like? What do their lives look like? The moment I saw the title of Mahesh Bhat’s self-published book, it struck a chord. Unsung—Extraordinary Lives is the second (and possibly unintended) volume in its series. In the foreword by Mahesh, he mentions, “The first volume of UNSUNG was published as a response to our celebrity lead hero culture. It assumed the mantle of a catalyst for change when it raised over Rs 9 million to the causes of the heroes it featured.”

The success of the first volume and the support of friends encouraged Mahesh to produce a second. The new volume features the work of well-known photographers, Amit Mehra, Dinesh Khanna, Prashant Panjiar, Jyothy Karat, Namas Bhojani and Mahesh Bhat himself—all superb documentarists and visual diarists. Each photographer in this volume introduces us to an unsung heroes known personally to each of them, from their years of travelling and work. While the personal introductions of the photographers acquaint us with these exceptional people in their own vivid and touching manner, their black and white photoessays on them offer us an intimate, emotional, and yet untinted glimpse into their lives, surroundings and activities.

In separate accounts, the heroes themselves describe their trysts with destiny. The book begins with Javed Ahmed Tak, a resident of Bijbehara in Kashmir, 150km from Srinagar. In 1997, a terrorist bullet hit 21-year-old Javed in his spine and rendered him a paraplegic for life. “Lying on my bed, I would hear the children outside… One day, I told my mother to go around the neighbourhood and collect the children who were not in school. She came back with two. By the end of the year, I was tutoring 90 children from morning till night,” he writes. Some of Javed’s students, in fact, are the children of militants, who Javed believes should not suffer for the sins of their fathers. Many are physically disabled like Javed, or struggle with mental disabilities. With him, they have now found a safe haven. A telling portrait by Amit Mehra shows Javed, brows furrowed… perhaps with the pain that plagues his body perpetually, or perhaps in worry… but with a smile that clearly shows his contentment and peace. An Unsung hero that resonates with me is photographer Dinesh Khanna’s father-in-law, Shri Rajendra Yadav from New Delhi. A journalist and author, his perpetual zest for good writing and publishing in Hindi was only equalled by his constant attacks against orthodoxy in society—both of which characterised his career and life.

The key architect of the Nai Kahani (New Story) movement, he encouraged bold writing on subjects like caste, intimacy and sexual exploitation. Dinesh’s portrait of him shows a man in deep contemplation, roiling with ideas and thoughts, and barely pent-up energies. Unsung highlights six other incredible everyday heroes—Narayana Reddy from Karnataka, Lalitha and Regi George from Tamil Nadu, Niketu Iralu from Nagaland, Sathyu Sarangi from Madhya Pradesh and Sugatha Kumari from Kerala. I have come to appreciate the rather quiet tone of both the writing and photography in Unsung. That photography, among the arts, has the distinction and power to benefit society, is beautifully evident in this rather unique volume. I do hope Unsung goes on to become a vol. 3, 4 and 5, to become a collectible set for India’s true heroes.

Title: Unsung— Extraordinary Lives
Author: Mahesh Bhat and others
Available at:
Publisher: Mahesh Bhat, self-published
Price: Rs. 950, inclusive of shipping and handling in India

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, better photography, Mahesh Bhat, book review, Unsung- Extraordinary Lives, February 2017