This pamphlet contains photographs of the ongoing impact of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi—taken by me for Tehelka magazine in 2005 (after the release of the Nanavati Commission report) and Outlook magazine in 2009 (to mark the 25th anniversary of the event); in Trilokpuri, Tilak Vihar and Garhi, as well as at protest rallies in the city. The captions that appear below them are as they were inscribed in the media then. Last month, I decided to ask some artist friends, who were living in Delhi at the time, or have since or prior, or see themselves as somehow participants of the city, to write a small comment alongside each photograph. It could be about the image or a more general observation related to the event; it could be abstract, poetic, personal, fictional, factual or nonsensically true in the way that were Toba Tek Singh’s seminal words on the partition.
I wished to use the photographs to trigger a conversation about what occurred. There is a kind of silence around 1984, a lack of comprehension or perhaps an inability to articulate the horrors of those weeks. When Nirpreet Kaur related her devastating story to us, she had to have a psychologist present in the room. I myself felt like leaving the room several times during the two hour-long narration. It was too much to absorb, and all I could do at the end of it was take a photograph. We urged her to write a book, I hope she does someday. Yet is recounting the story cathartic, or unbearably painful—especially when it does not lead to justice? And is it because those first person accounts are missing that we have few retellings of the event?
The stories are missing, justice is absent. In 1984 there were no 24 hour television channels, internet or social media. Therefore, only eyewitness accounts, notes and photographs. Those photographers who documented the actual massacre or its aftermath that November were terrified that their photographs would be made to disappear from photo-labs by the all powerful State, which was itself implicated. Images did disappear—and have never since been located. Those that survived may now be used as evidence; or to relive the emotion. At a street exhibition of photographs organised in 2012 by the activist HS Phoolka many of the visitors were weeping involuntarily even as they used their cell phone cameras to re-photograph the images on display.
My photographs in themselves are now a kind of artifact, since they were mediated by the mainstream media and had a certain valence in that context. I wondered how they might be viewed removed from it.
"Jis tann lãgé soee jãné”, as the Punjabi saying goes. Only she whose body is hurt, knows. But perhaps it is also for those of us individuals who were not direct victims to try and articulate the history of our city—and universe. A world without personal interpretations, opinions, thoughts, secrets and photographs is indeed 1984 in the Orwellian sense. “We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness”; that place turned out to be a cell in a building where the lights were never turned off, one that was under surveillance both by day and night, and where imagination was outlawed.
The original photographs appeared in Tehelka (with Hartosh Bal) and Outlook (with Shreevatsa Nevatia)
Texts: Jeebesh Bagchi, Sarnath Bannerjee, Hartosh Bal, Amarjit Chandan, Arpana Caur, Rana Dasgupta, Manmeet Devgun, Anita Dube, Mahmood Farouqui, Iram Ghufran, Ruchir Joshi, Rashmi Kaleka, Ranbir Kaleka, Sonia Khurana, Saleem Kidwai, Pradip Kishen, Subasri Krishnan, Lawrence Liang, Vivek Narayanan, Monica Narula, Ajmer Rode, Anusha Rizvi, Nilanjana Roy, Inder Salim, Priya Sen, Gurvinder Singh, Jaspreet Singh, Madan Gopal Singh, Paromita Vohra.
Cover: Notebook pages, courtesy Shreevatsa Nevatia
Design: Anusha Yadav
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