FOR the past two decades or so, Indian-born poet, artist and medical doctor Amitabh Mitra has had an intimate relationship with the people of Mdantsane, which he has served with unflinching dedication.

Being a doctor at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital, Mitra has been a witness to how brutal township life can be – but also at times, how humane.

Now his experiences culminate in a new coffee table book called Mdantsane Breathing, Poetry and Art of a South African Township, which brings together Mitra’s fine art and poetry in a series of sketches about life in South Africa’s second largest township.
Mitra likes to fuse various artforms and his latest offering is no exception.

Every page consists of a painting or sketch – mainly in mixed mediums of watercolour and pastel – as well as

Mitra’s superb poetry, in which he distills the essence of township life “breathing”.

“highway taxi rank in mdantsane/wakes up to a dust smeared morning/in a cacophony of smog and stridor/people travel their dreams/and hopes/on a brittle movement.”

What follows is a journey through the heart of Mdantsane, a place which Mitra says “needs to be recognised to be as significant as Soweto”.

He shows us that Mdantsane sometimes can be an unforgiving.

“i am there too/the fluid runs as blood weeps/black is the colour of freedom here/the souls jagged edge/dares to take the curfew/of disase and death/the hospital wall catches a permanent/tan/too.”

But also filled with pathos and laughter.

“sometimes a light flickers/somewhere/only for a moment/when children laugh/at nothingness/its echo look for another mdantsane.”

Mitra’s art superbly compliments his poems. He draws from his Indian roots with vibrant colours and again fusing it with earthy tones of Africa.

He switches between landscapes and figures, which he portrays with immense empathy.

Mdantsane Breathing is indeed a different kind of book, bringing with it a view of the township that’s accessible to people, like me, who have never lived there.

But it also brings at times a melancholic familiarity of how little life in South Africa has changed.

It is a tour de force for one of East London’s most prolific poets and artists.

For more information on how to order Mdantsane Breathing and other titles, please go to or contact Mitra at – By JAN HENNOP