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How Do You Revive a Newspaper’s Photo Archive in Present-Day India?

By interspersing images from the past, ‘A Photogenetic Line’ generates a narrative that is a commentary on the present.

In artist collective CAMP’s ‘A Photogenetic Line’ (2019), reproductions of photographs – taken from the archive of The Hindu newspaper – document pivotal events from modern South Asian history.

At Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery, the work has been placed on a 100-foot long table. But this tableau-like setting is anything but the outcome of an archive simply revisited. The photographs, in colour and black and white, have been presented in the form of cutouts, where each photograph has been blown up to highlight select parts of the original composition so as to add to the narrative plot of the exhibition.

These include a wide range of events such as mass protests (in favour of film Fire in 1998); fire accidents (at The Hindu office in 2013); faces of well-known politicians (Rajiv Gandhi, Mehbooba Mufti); freedom fighter (Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan); and sports and entertainment figures (Kalaripayattu exponent Shaji K. John; and the talented billiards player Kamala Devi).

There’s a sense of drama that unfolds through the exhibition because of the way a large number of cutouts have been installed next to each other in a queue of looped visual histories.

In the first set, with the oldest pictures dating back to 1937, we begin with the journey of Pakhtun freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who goes from being a tall, strapping man to an older man in wheelchair. In each of these cutouts, he has been cropped out of the original image, establishing a timeline of a confident leader fighting for Pakhtun freedom to a hunched, contemplative man disappointed with partition and tortured by jail terms in Pakistan. This is especially true of an image where he is seen breaking a three-day fast in New Delhi, where he looks reticent and weakened. The photograph was taken on October 6, 1969.

That year, Khan was visiting India for the centenary celebrations of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he worked closely during the freedom struggle – a collaboration that got him the moniker ‘Frontier Gandhi’. In a gesture reminiscent of his mentor, Khan went on a hunger strike to end the communal riots witnessed during Gandhi’s 100th birth anniversary. “You are forgetting Gandhi the way you forgot the Buddha,” Khan is reported to have said in a joint session of parliament.

Fast forward 50 years later, to 2019, when the BJP-led NDA government is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, at home and abroad, and his namesake’s words continue to sound ominous. The Narendra Modi government’s return to power has been seen as an endorsement of a hyper-nationalism interwoven with majoritarian Hindutva sentiment. As their victory stokes fears of hatred, censorship and intolerance in the country, Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and truth are under attack, even though the ruling party continues to appropriate his legacy for global publicity.

Panoramic view of ‘A Photogenetic Line’ at Experimenter gallery. Picture courtesy: CAMP and Experimenter

It is with these undercurrents of a rapidly changing – if not transforming – India that ‘A Photogenetic Line’ becomes representative of our times. As the show looks back at history, roughly covering the post-independence India, we are at once reminded of how the nation is being currently painted with a distinctly ‘Hindu’ brush by the NDA government. This has happened because of controversies arising out of recent decisions related to the beef ban, doing yoga in schools, censorship of films, tinkering with history textbooks and a Hindu claim to India’s ancestry.

This exhibition also takes us to Sri Lanka, referencing ethnic conflicts by showing a black and white photograph of the Jaffna Public Library, which was once home to a vast treasure of Tamil literary history. This library was set ablaze by Sinhalese mobs and security forces in 1981. The incident was one of the triggers of a 26-year-long civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who wanted an independent Tamil state. Parts of the attacked building, such as the windows and some doors, have been removed in the cutout, thereby recreating a ‘charred’ memory.

Close to the Jaffna library image, a coloured photograph shows a piece of rock that has the 2nd-century Tamil-Brahmi script over its surface, with an accompanying text, written by CAMP, in the exhibition brochure. It says: “claims on Tamil as a language go far back into shapes on rocks. How far can this go?”

The Public Library, which was burnt in 1981, is now being re-built in Jaffna. About 96,000 volumes of valuable books and manuscripts were destroyed in the arson. Installation picture courtesy: CAMP and Experimenter

While ‘A Photogenetic Line’ brings into focus the history of Tamil alienation in Sri Lanka, it also echoes South India’s own resistance towards the imposition of Hindi, a legacy spanning back to the pre-independence years. The most recent example of this is the draft National Education Policy under the new Modi government, which proposed to make Hindi compulsory in non-Hindi speaking states. The clause was swiftly withdrawn after protests from Southern states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

‘A Photogenetic Line’ thus shows a clear propensity towards plurality of opinions and discourses, which is quite relevant in present-day India: we are told what to eat, whom to support and worship and what language to study.

Half-way through the work, a series of cutouts showing politicians from South India – heavyweights such as M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalithaa; a bust of Dravidian movement leader Periyar; current Tamil Nadu chief minister E.K. Palaniswami – represent the ‘south-of-Vindhyas’ arc in the contemporary Indian narrative. Quite obviously, the Tamil Nadu cutouts stand as a metaphor for a distinct southern Indian identity, especially in the face of the BJP’s failure at largely breaking the so-called southern frontier in the recent general elections.

The thread of alternative narrative continues to run along the exhibition when a cutout shows a member of the Dalit Panthers of India presenting a desktop computer to a young girl from the minority community. The exhibit’s symbolism is hard to miss as rising incidence of lynchings and caste-based violence against Muslims and Dalits have created an atmosphere of fear, prompting Modi to make a statement, as the newly elected leader of NDA, to win the trust of minorities who have been made to live in fear.

Close to the Dalit Panthers image is a cutout of a young, clean-shaven boy, dressed in a golden-yellow kurta, sitting next to a desktop computer. The boy is Tanveer Ahmad Malik, a rescued teenager who had been recruited by the Lashkar-e-Toiba, now photographed at a computer institute in Bandipora. Building upon this narrative, the text in the brochure adds: “By now computers can be used for rescuing youth from militancy and making them collect Freedom CDs instead.”

Right next to it, a cutout shows Mehbooba Mufti inaugurating a computer lab in Anantnag, Kashmir. But the scene changes rapidly. In another cutout, we see teargas shelling in Srinagar as the body of Nissar Ahmed (killed by tear gas shell fired by police in 2009) is being carried by protesters during his funeral procession. The photo, according to the caption plate in the exhibition, was taken by a journalist of the same name.

A girl student belonging to a minority community and a beneficiary of the free computer scheme of the Dalit Panthers of India party, receiving the set at a function at Chidambaram, on July 11, 2006. Installation picture courtesy: CAMP and Experimenter

This is a chilling narrative that first shows computers a sign of progress among the Kashmiris, but it changes when we note reference to the so-called ‘Freedom CDs’, recalling the ‘azadi’ slogans in Kashmir. The scene is overshadowed by chairs being flung by protestors clashing with the police, recalling an atmosphere of locals being caught in the crossfire, with many of them joining militants as a consequence. The cutouts remind us of the Pulwama attack, which was also led by a young man, Adil Ahmed Dar, from the same district. In an interview, parents of the 20-year-old, who rammed an explosives-laden car into a CRPF convoy killing at least 40 jawans, said the man joined militants after being beaten up by Indian troops a few years ago.

These multiple voices can be easily traced in the exhibition, foregrounding concerns about the contentious Kashmir issue that is intertwined with how the government’s majoritarian tendency will shape India in the next five years. This is especially true as commentators and regional politicians express grave concerns regarding the BJP favouring removal of J&K’s special status, seen by the PM as an impediment to the state’s development.

Separately, a recent Reuters report mentions the government’s plan of proving that Hindus are direct descendants of India’s first inhabitants has added more toxicity to an already polarised discourse. History is being similarly distorted in school and college textbooks, with some of them deleting references to Gandhi and Nehru in the chapters on freedom struggle, and others referring to Muslims, Parsis and Christians as “foreigners”.

(From extreme right) The Duke of Kashmir, also called man with x-ray eyes, during a demonstration in Chennai (1954); Kamala Devi at a championship in Bengaluru (1995); a younger Kamala Devi at a snooker event in Chennai (1955); Kalaripayattu expert Shaji John at a studio in Chennai (2011); (extreme left) English cricketer Edward Paynter during a cricket match (1938). Installation picture courtesy: CAMP and Experimenter

In view of the shrill acrimony of India’s political scenario today, ‘A Photogenetic Line’ deserves wider visibility. It is the most recent work by Mumbai-based CAMP studio, known for their films that interrogate authoritarian systems and surveillance practices. This show makes a comment about how we can handle history in an age being characterised as ‘post-truth’. The supporting brochure to the exhibition, with critical descriptions about the works that are different from The Hindu’s original captions, also serves as a tool to investigate history.

With a hyper-active disinformation propaganda seen as the nerve centre of BJP’s PR blitz, archives (such as the one revisited by CAMP) have an important role to play in order to separate facts from fabricated stories. It is because of this reason that the exhibition opens up possibilities developing a new archive from an existing one, especially when the public discourse is being hijacked and made to look one-dimensional.

The exhibition continues through July 15, 2019 at Experimenter gallery, Hindusthan Road, Kolkata.

Ankush Arora is a Delhi-based writer.