Smokescreen: the light — and darkness of Baul Dada’s journey at Knights of the Raj NYC

Knights of the Raj NYC. By Farzana Karim

By Farzana Karim and Samira Sadeque

The tables are set. The bright lights pierce through the dark hallway. We stand in a orchestrated restaurant playing old Hindi music. A dark screen separates the restaurant from an exhibition of Baul Dada’s bedroom, his story of four decades.

Behind the bed with kanthas sprawled on, Sanwar Ahmed, the man fondly known as Baul Dada in the Jackson Heights Bangladeshi community, appears on the screen to tell his story.

He tells the audience about his journey, how he reached for the American dream years ago and landed on the streets of Jackson Heights. “I am the first to bring Bangladeshi jhalmuri to New York,” he says, his eyes beaming with pride.

Baul Dada has lived in New York for four decades, selling paan and jhalmuri on the streets of Jackson Heights. As he boasts in the video, he played a crucial role in bringing to New Yorkers a taste of our street-food, the puffed-rice, chanachur, onions, and green chilis, mixed in spices. He has even been featured on platforms such as the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown blog, and the Fung Bros Youtube channel. Last evening, he was featured on Cynthia Nixon’s Instagram.

But his journey here is coming to an end. And to pay a tribute to that, Mohammad Ali, a London-based artist, featured Baul Dada’s story in his current ongoing project Knights of the Raj. The exhibition is an immersive experience where participants are taken through a tour of a Deshi restaurant separated with a screen from the bedroom.

Exhibition of Baul Dada’s bedroom. By Mohammed Ali

“We’re about honoring the legacy of elder generation that migrated here historically,” Ali told the Bangladeshi Identity Project.

Knights of the Raj began as part of Ali’s project documenting “the heritage and history of Bangladeshi-owned ‘Indian’ restaurants” in Birmingham, UK. It has a particular focus on Bangladeshi immigrants in the food industry, which is why, Ali says, Baul Dada’s story — of coming here with little knowledge of the language and setting up with limited resources — was an important feature for their exhibition in New York.

“I was captivated by his story,” says Ali. “This is kind of a tribute to him, really.”

Knights of the Raj NYC will be exhibited at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City until August 5th. You can also taste some excellent cooking from Ali’s mother’s homemade recipes.

The exhibit hit home for members in the audience.

“For me, the illusion, and even distortions, that the screen and plastic barrier created very much mimicked the illusion and warped understanding of the American dream and it’s reality for immigrants,” said Zuleyha Kayi, a participant who attended the exhibition on Saturday. “It really hit me hard. When the film ends, you’re left with your reflection on the plastic barrier. At that moment, seeing your reflection is a stark reminder of their reality versus yours.”

“I think we all know about these struggles but the Knights of the Raj exhibit and sharing jhalmuri Dada’s story is bringing this conversation to the forefront and bridging the intergenerational conversation,” says Nayim Islam, Immigrant Rights Organizer at Desis Rising Up & Moving (DRUM), an organization of which Baul Dada is a member.

Today, Baul Dada’s pioneering days are behind him. At the age of 89, having lived undocumented in NYC for almost four decades and giving up on the sight of any “American dream,” Dada now dreams of seeing his family.

Baul Dada at Chayya CDC’s Chatpati Mela, in July, where he was awarded the Community Leadership Award for Small Business Trailblazer. By Farzana Karim

Islam says Baul Dada had four children in Bangladesh. His family still lives in the same home where he left them, though one of his sons has since gone missing. DRUM is currently assisting Baul Dada to help him pack up his life and return to Bangladesh next month, while a GoFundMe page has been started to assist with expenses.

As for knights of Raj, timed tickets and seats are limited — trust us, you want to grab yours today!