Upon entering the Art and Aesthetic Gallery in New Delhi, a visitor is entranced by the smell of burnt grass permeating the darkness and silence of the room. The darkness is lifted in places by candles hung from rustic holders in front of straw mats on which certain faces are etched in shades of black and grey. On closer inspection, the contours become more distinct, the faces of resistance against military oppression emerge.
These are the images of the comrades of Kalpana Chakma, a dauntless young indigenous woman of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in Bangladesh. As the organising secretary of the Hill Women’s Federation, Kalpana rebelled against the repression and harassment of indigenous men and women in the CHT by the Bangladesh army. She also organised meetings and seminars throughout the area to mobilise and unite the Paharis, as they are commonly called. She had also lent strong support to the Parbatya Chattagram Jana Samhati Samiti, which spearheaded an armed rebellion against the Bangladesh government, demanding autonomy in the region and rights for the Jumma community. It includes all the indigenous people of the cht region, including the Chakma ethnic group.
In the early hours of 12 June 1996, hours before the general election of Bangladesh, Kalpana was abducted at gunpoint by the military, never to be seen again. The main accused Lieutenant Ferdous was never questioned and the army washed its hands off all allegations. It is the exponential dilution of the Paharis by the government that prompted Shahidul Alam to come up with Kalpana’s Warriors. Part of No More campaign that the photographer activist had started in 2010, this photo exhibition features images which symbolise the conflict.
In contrast to the sombre arrangement of the portraits is a brightly lit second exhibit of the Kaptai lake, which led to the inundation of the rainforests and displacement of the hill people. The lake was artificially constructed as a result of the Kaptai Dam on the Karnaphuli river, to produce electricity, the benefits of which the displaced Chakmas never enjoyed.
Kalpana’s Warriors could not be shown in any of the galleries in Bangladesh other than Drik Gallery in Dhaka, which Alam himself had started in 1989, as it criticises the military which is considered a taboo over there. According to Alam, the motivation for this work came from Kalpana’s comrades themselves.
“I wanted to engage with my audience in a more powerful way than what conventional photography allows, says Alam. When I interviewed the activists, I came to know that there was nothing in Kalpana’s house, no furniture except for a straw mat. Then how come a woman with precious little become such a threat to the State that they made her disappear?”. An understanding of the life that Kalpana led gave Alam the vital clues to capture the images. Thus the ragged straw mat of hers became the canvas for the portraits. “But how to produce the imagery on the mats? They are not photographic material. For this process I went back to the politics of the story,” Alam says.
In the last altercation Kalpana had with lieutenant Ferdous, she was furious with military for torching the villages to ashes. Alam decided upon laser beams to etch the images by burning the mats as a symbolic tool of resistance to military oppression.
The technical hurdles were paramount since laser device is a one-bit device and can either burn or not burn, totally incapable of producing shades of grey which Alam needed. “To transform the images from 16 bit to one bit images… Then through digital screening and counter resolution that the mat and the laser beam could work with… there was huge amount of failure,” he says. The trials of the process are evident in one of the portraits where a huge hole has been burnt, something which the photographer has retained as a part of the exhibit.
The sense of urgency in Alam to challenge inequality is not confined to Kalpana’s Warriors. His earlier works, ranging from documenting the autocratic regime of General Hussain Muhammad Ershad (A Struggle For Democracy) to increasing extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh (Crossfire), reflect his anger towards State oppression. Kalpana’s Warriors is the third in a series of photo exhibition that began with Searching for Kalpana Chakma in 2013 followed by 18 in 2014. It first opened in the Drik Gallery.
“We started Drik in response to a very specific need. By and large countries like Bangladesh are known for famine, disasters and all the wrong things. It is not that we were trying to ignore the realities but we felt that there were far more to our countries, cultures and people than these labels,” Alam says. Suggesting that they are part of ‘Majority World’, he asks, “On what parameter they call us the third world?”
Alam also shared an interesting anecdote about how the West views Bangladesh. During a show in Belfast, he became friends with a couple’s daughter Karina. Alam says, “One day I came back from the show and I put some coins from my pocket on the table and Karina was staring at me from the doorway. Usually when I come home she jumps on my lap and we tell each other stories but that day she kept standing there. I asked her what is the matter.” She replied, “You’ve got money in your pockets?” The 5-year-old couldn’t believe that people from Bangladesh could have money.
“This perception influences people’s mindset to such an extent that we ourselves have, in some cases, accepted it as our destiny,” says Alam.This has to be seen in terms of the relationship between the US and Bangladesh. If you look at it clinically countries like Bangladesh actually gets a very small part of its Gross Domestic Product (gdp) from foreign aid. Yet, the foreign aid paints a different picture of us. In practice, we suffer from a post-colonial mindset, an inferiority complex.” It didn’t take long for Alam to realise that this perception was created by western media and ngos. The urge to tell stories effectively prompted him to create Drik in Bangladesh, a platform for local story-tellers.
Alam started training photographers initially within Drik and at a later stage opened a full-fledged school of photography, ‘Pathshala’. Chobi Mela, organised by Drik and Pathshala since 2000, has become the largest biennial international festival of photography in Asia.
In 2007, Alam founded an innovative photo agency, Majority World, to take the transformation, he has brought about in Bangladesh, to other parts of the world.
Bangladesh was born on the basis of the right to speak its own language. Yet the right of the Jumma people is suppressed in the country. “Here is a situation where I, myself, am an oppressor. It is the Bengalis like me who are taking over the lands of the Paharis. Though, I must admit that we are also poor. Class division continues to exist and within this divide are issues of race and ethnicity,” Alam says.
A picture of texts in indigenous language of the Chakmas points to the attempts to revive their language and literature. Kalpana’s comrades are trying hard to achieve the same through educational campaigns.
An audio-visual narrative in the second room shows Kabita Chakma, the successor of Kalpana and currently underground, telling the story of their movement and struggles.
A resistance poem by Kabita in indigenous language was also read out as a part of the exhibition along with English, Bengali and Hindi recitations of the same. The last photograph of Kalpana, taken in Dhaka where she had gone to get a visa to attend the Beijing Women’s International Congress, was also there at the venue.
Regarding India, Alam says, “What we call ‘crossfire’ you call ‘encounter’, what is happening in the hill tracts is happening in the Northeast. What is ironic is that India’s perception outside of her is not influenced by this reality. India is a land full of promises, but the fact that there are so many inequalities, from farmer’s suicides to rapes, that those need to be questioned. When we talk about the differences between nation states, we also talk about the differences in political decisions and party politics. However, we forget that the struggles of the common people, the subaltern, are, in many ways, no different.”