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Shame and honour at play in violent realities
Abhirup Dam  22nd Mar 2014

Scenes from Amar Kanwar’s Lightning Testimonies up at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art

t was a humid July afternoon in muggy Kolkata. The auditorium was dark and stuffy. On stage was unfolding a powerful performative expression — stark enough to make you squirm in your seat, yet subtle enough to appeal to your cushioned aesthetic demands. The play was Heisnam Kanhailal's Draupadi, based on the short story of the same name by Maheswata Devi. In the climax of the play, Kanhailal's wife and veteran theatre actress Sabitri Heisnam who plays Draupadi appears naked on stage, after taking off her clothes one by one, as she marches forward to face her oppressors. In Devi's story, a naked Draupadi also confronts the perpetrator of her tragic fate with her mangled breasts and bruised body. Heisnam did not have any body make-up, yet every gesture, every move that her unadorned body made filled one with horror — to understand what one endured when one's body becomes the seat of organised, oppressive violence. I could not wait for the play to end. I was ashamed. The shame wasn't born out of seeing a naked woman. It was a shame born out being part of a patriarchal system that uses sexual violence to dominate and oppress in every possible context of our impudent present.

Recently, at Amar Kanwar's multi-channel video installation Lightning Testimonies at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, I was yet again faced with a production which welcomingly breaks the bourgeois and patriarchal comfort of the audience. Through an eight channel video set-up, Kanwar traces numerous contexts, timelines and situations which are conjoined by acts of sexual violence that frames them. Made in 2007, Roshan Bayaan or Lightning Testimonies entails projections that simultaneously portray the accounts of women who have been subjects of sexual violence. In an imagined continuum that situates itself in the chronological expanse between 1947 and 2006, the videos explore the notions of nation, region, religion, caste, tribe, power and community that work to perpetrate violence on women every day. The 113 minutes of footage, interviews, and graphics raises a set of powerful questions about definitions and the significance of women's bodies.

Kanwar takes us to 1947, stating that sexual violence has no chronology, where the camera searches for those countless women, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh — the irrelevance of their religious identities when it comes to the realities they were faced highlighted — who were "rescued" and put into camps, only to discover dilapidated walls, standing empty and desolate. The text on the screen reads: "I ask did she want to be found, did she want to go back? I am told that she did not have the choice to make that decision at the time. I begin to recount and remember the...

Moving trains,
women and men fleeing
amidst silence and 'lightning'
rape, killing, abduction, disappearance
for family honour and religion,
and ask
Is this about Nationhood?
Is this Freedom?"

Bangladesh 1971, Gujarat 2002, Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland make up more of the testimonies. Rapes done to control and dominate lower castes, tribals. Rapes commited by the brutal state machinery in order to restrain the freedom of people. Kanwar's installations will make you uncomfortable. They will make you feel a little less complacent. They will make you feel ashamed. Karl Marx once wrote: "Shame is already revolution of a kind. Shame is a kind of anger which is turned inward. And if a whole nation really experienced a sense of shame, it would be like a lion, crouching ready to spring."

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