A Festival of Lights Brings Beauty to India's Urban Slums

During Diwali, life alongside the railway tracks takes on an air of magic.

Riding inside one of the densely packed train cars along Kolkata's Suburban Railway Network, you can reach your hand out of the open doorways and literally touch the tenements built alongside, says Indian photographer Arko Datto. "Passing by, one can gaze at the plethora of life on view: people going on with their daily affairs in a space where the lines between public and private are blurred to extremes."

In a city where about one third of the residents are slum dwellers, life in these semipermanent dwellings is crowded and uncertain, and, while the structures are perhaps a source of voyeuristic fascination, they are generally not considered a thing of beauty.

Datto had long been fascinated by these structures as a manifestation of the legacy of colonialism, migration from rural areas, industrialization, and poverty, but he wanted to find a fresh take. So he decided to look at the urban housing crisis through the filter of another well-represented part of life in India—Diwali, or the festival of lights.

Every autumn, people around the country decorate their homes with colorful lights, burn candles, and light firecrackers in what has become a pan-Indian celebration of the triumph of light over darkness. For Datto, the lights mingled with the coming winter mist transform the everyday look of disrepair into something magical and—in keeping with the spirit of the festival—represents hope over despair.

Arko Datto is a photographer based in India. You can see more of his work on his website.

Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor for National Geographic.