The Lightning Testimonies, an acclaimed feminist exhibition, comes to Assam, and its powerful images speak to the region’s own legacies and women’s often-sidelined stories.
Why do women’s bodies become the site of the mad pursuit of possession of lands? When the bodies of women – and the dignity they deserve but almost always have to beg for – are mutilated to the bone, what is remembered? What is forgotten? What remains? What is submerged?
For the first time since Amar Kanwar created it in 2007, ‘The Lightning Testimonies‘ exhibition visits Assam, the northeastern state in India. The exhibition brings back the spasms of memories of violence that the Indian subcontinent has since long been familiarised with, as it reflects upon a history of conflict in the region through experiences of sexual violence.
Every year in Assam, as with its bordering neighbours, at least one gruesome episode of violence breaks out. That the grotesque has become so mundane that it is best shrugged away, is exemplified by the fact that it took so long for this exhibit to come to this region of India.
‘The Lightning Testimonies’ is a set of eight synchronised video projections with sound tracks, which play in a 32-minute cycle continuously through the day. The projections lead to disparate narratives, which then converge into a single projection. The stories of women from different times and different regions unfold: of the violence they suffered and resisted, the violence that is remembered and recorded. Without a singular style, the exhibit takes the viewer through time and space, through a bombardment of facts and metaphorical images of a region wounded and its women scarred.
While the central theme of the exhibit is the violence upon women’s bodies through various moments of political upheavals across a considerable time span of several decades, every situation is unique and yet so similar.
What is baffling to one who has grown up with stories of nationalism and the struggle of independence from the British, is the complete absence of the narratives of magnanimity of the scale of violence during the Partition, in school curriculum as well as in the popular media.
Even as Hollywood churns out – and the Academy recognises – at least one feature length film every year that remembers the Holocaust and World War II, the Indian subcontinent has succeeded in ripping away the pages of its own history that were inked with blood and the shrills of gagged women.
‘The Lightning Testimonies’ tries to undo this, by remembering the thousands of Hindu and Muslims women who were abducted during the Partition in 1947; it acknowledges the regular occurrences of Dalit women being paraded naked across India’s villages. The exhibit lays bare the scars of the people of Kashmir and Manipur who have been protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – a law, while granting unconditional powers to the military to contain the militancy, has led to grave human rights violations in the hands of the military. From the rape of 53 women in Kunan Poshpora in 1991, to the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama in captivity by armed personnel in 2004, the attempt to curb militancy has only perpetrated the control of women as the testimony to a sense of patriarchal triumph.
A red bloom of flowers wake up the eight screens, and slowly, as a morning train ride gives a thinning glimpse of unknown places – and their stories – one’s settling vision is disturbed with different videos, which appear across the eight screens. There is not a single way to view just one story on one screen: the attempt to disturb is achieved through sounds tracks, and images that are teased with the temperature of different lights and the minimal narrative texts. The viewer is thus taken to Manipur, Nagaland, Khairlanji, Gujarat, Kashmir, the sites of Bangladesh’s Liberation War, and those tracts of land that were divided into India and Pakistan during the Partition.
As the stillness of objects within the home recreate the scene of the day when Luingshimla was abducted by a captain in the Indian army, her story is conveyed by her mother who remembers the daughter by weaving a shawl with an intricate pattern, with every shape and shade of strand bearing a symbol. Yet on another screen that is darkened with the thicket of the forest, allowing only pinholes of light to seep in – as it often happens with The Truth – the story of the rape of a woman on a church pulpit in Nagaland is remembered.
On another screen with the twilight darkness in the mountains of Kashmir, names of women flash, slowly, one by one. The slow pace with which the names appear exemplifies the inability to find the answers to the nearly 8,000 people in Kashmir who have disappeared, or been killed, or sexually assaulted, over two decades. At several moments the names are interspersed with the word “unknown”. And there are many such moments. Who could the “unknown” have been? With the burning of the valley and yet its shrill cries never piercing Indian consciousness enough, one is left to wonder aloud along with the screen: “Which image can represent the ever-changing words of a testimony?” “Can a location present itself in the court?” How often we may have heard, “Inconsistencies were cited as the reason for the closure of the case.” And then, suddenly, the complainant – the one who has been violated – is silenced by being deemed a “liar”.
In places that have been visited upon by conflict regularly, there is little difference between the sky crackling illumination from lightning, and explosions. The haunting background scores juxtaposed with the fleeting traffic sounds demonstrate the everydayness of these incidents. Yet, with the morning, the flowers bloom, as the wrinkles of conflict and violence deepen into the landscape.
The words “nation”, “father”, “attacker”, “brother”, coalesce together until they are just letters of the alphabet, but soon one understands why: they merge to represent how women were traded during the Partition, marking borders over women’s bodies, and the religion they did not choose to be raised as. It is estimated that 75,000 women were abducted during the Partition. The black-and-white images from that time are juxtaposed with a shot of dilapidated building that served as a recovery home for both Muslim and Hindu women. Every woman rescued was unlike the other – a family lost, a family that ostracised her, a future unknown, a future compromised. As Mridula Sarabhairescued the largest number of women in what is now known as Pakistan, she saw how the two infant countries negotiated the exchange of “their” women. There was no room for the women’s consent, and, in the recorded words of Sarabhai, “Consent could have no meaning in an atmosphere of fear.”
The massacre of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji in the state of Maharashtra in 2006 had been a reminder that caste continues to define one’s existence in the Indian subcontinent. Priyanka Bhotmange and her mother Surekha had been paraded naked in public before being allegedly raped and murdered. As the incident is depicted through sombre drawings of a woman whose visage is fleeting, at one point the screen freezes with the passport photograph of a young Priyanka.
Within the dark exhibition area, I stare into the face of my namesake, imagining her staring back at me, reminding me that, just by their mere existence and because of other identities they may not choose for themselves, women continue to feel violated. Suddenly I realise that her identity rendered her dead while mine rendered me privileged; suddenly I realise that the her-stories of oppression allow us to recognise ourselves in each other.
The eight videos within the exhibit converge into a single screen of extreme close-up shots which do not shy away from revealing warts and wrinkles of theatre artiste Heisnam Sabitri from Manipur, as she performs “Draupadi”. Her clenched fists seem to hold tight the memories of those raped, disappeared, mutilated and killed in Manipur, allowing the painful memories to metamorphose into her stellar performance. Her sing-song wails might be in Manipuri, yet, don’t we all recognise the language of rage and despair? “Draupadi”, which shows the plight of an indigenous woman who commands a military personnel to not cloth her, was censored from being performed in Manipur’s state capital of Imphal for 14 years. Sabitri reveals her naked body to the personnel, showing the personal space when the games of violence are played out.
Her shocking performance on stage found its way painfully on the streets of Kangla in 2004, when women, old and young, stripped themselves before the Indian Army headquarters, screaming, “Rape us, kill us, flesh us… we are all Manorama’s mothers.” This was no performance. It was wild rage and despair against the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. Amid the fury were exasperated tears. The installation loop ends with blurred images of the women laughing by the blinding sparks of a bonfire – their laughter muted, the crackling of the fire minimal, and then a shot of a morning where a bird settles into a rubble of a wrecked house.
‘The Lightning Testimonies’ shocks and numbs, rewinds and reminds. Perhaps her body is mere flesh. But for the mothers of Manipur, the body becomes the instrument of resistance and protest. Their bare backs and exposed breasts, like the exhibit, reflect to us that what the Indian subcontinent is afraid to come to terms with: the patriarchal essence of the region, even as every significant victory in the women’s movement still feels minuscule.