Violence visualised

Published : Jun 01, 2023 11:00 IST - 3 MINS READ

Naveen Kishore’s ‘In a Cannibal Time’ is a photographer’s attempt to render in images scenes of intense agony and shame.

It was January 2002 and Seagull Books was preparing to set up its stall at the Kolkata Book Fair. The 9/11 attacks had happened just months earlier and the smell of blood and terror was very much in the air. Seagull decided to use the straw and clay forms on which the idols of the gods take shape during Bengal’s puja season, arranging the mannequins in poses of captivity and subjugation. Later, these figures were wrapped in plastic and stored in the bookshop’s courtyard.

A month later, Gujarat 2002 happened, a brutal bloodletting that came closer home to this generation than anything they had seen before. Deeply shaken, Naveen Kishore, Seagull’s founder and a photographer in his own right, felt compelled to respond creatively, though perhaps mutely, even helplessly. The result was a series of surreal photographs that now, two decades later, are part of a show titled “In a Cannibal Time” in Kolkata, along with two other sets of Kishore’s photographs.

Imagine a scene of frenetic activity. Two men haphazardly strewing straw effigies across a dim room. A smoke machine. A spotlight. Black polythene sheets. A handheld analog camera. Scenes from holocaust films like Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog being projected on the images. And as this mise-en-scene forms and dissolves and reforms, the camera clicks away, making new images that take on a life of their own. The result is a stunning set of almost-accidental, almost-planned images that recreate eerie sites of carnage and death. They are far away from Gujarat, from Noakhali, from Nellie, from Delhi in 1984, and yet they are so close you can almost smell the flesh.

Could these figures, frozen in time, in terror, in rigor mortis, have seen a new life, become gods or dolls or puppets? Or were they forever doomed to be distorted, in agonised death? What is it about them that is so infinitely moving even though I know they are staged dummies?

I think of Chronicles of a Death Foretold, that reconstruction of another murder, that stepping back in time, that deceptively simple, deliberately slow decoding of lives and people, of loves and hates. That sense of walking into a site of slaughter in medias res too late to do anything but watch, record, write, photograph. In the Márquez book, the murder takes place in a deeply religious Christian town that upholds high morality and righteousness and yet the town, knowing fully the killing about to take place, falls strangely silent. Its citizens no longer recall their god’s sixth commandment. They participate, with volition.

For viewers of these photographs, a doubled sense of such complicity creeps in, first as silent onlookers of a massacre that took place unstopped on a land we all call home, and then as consumers of the images of horror that emerged from there. And one begins to see the photographer’s need to reconstruct, to retell, to understand, and possibly to avert that which should not have happened. In Kishore’s words, the photographs came from “my urge to create through images and text some kind of a ‘response’ to what happened. Not to find answers. But to help me deal with this moment of personal and national shame.”

InA Cannibal Time: Naveen Kishore. April 28-June 25, 2023. Emami Art, Kolkata Centre for Creativity.

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