When you view Amar Kanwar's The Lightning Testimonies [1] as a single channel, 'whole' documentary film as part of the Bombay Ki Kahani, Mumbai Ki Zubaani [2] campaign in 2012-2013, remembering the .1992-93 Bombay violence at the Women's Development Cell of Mumbai University, you see it differently from when you re-view it at Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, as a multiple channel video installation in a black box. The contrast between the two experiences is instructive of how cultural products are comprehended within specific contexts. The experience changes, the meanings change, the registers of address change, according to the context. One realises then that the process of naming something as 'art or 'documentary' or even 'knowledge', particularly, when the cultural product engages with politics, is complex. And yet, in both instances, I came back with the stories told by Kanwar, already known to me from elsewhere, experienced with a distinct urgency of a 'now and here' kind.

When I first saw The Lightning Testimonies at a university seminar, I saw it, with several others assembled there, as a documentary film on the subject of political violence against women. The film was followed by a stunned silence. In my mind, I gave it a standing ovation. While I worried about the abstract nature and language of the film, its slowness and its reception, I pondered over the role of documentary films in consciousness-building. Should the 'message' have been more direct? Is the filmmaker being self-indulgent? What is a feminist film? Would a woman make the film differently? Is it not important that a man has made the film? As I waded through these perennial questions in my sociologist s head, as it were, I found release in the response of the many women assembled to view the film. Most articulated an instant connect with the stories in the film and with the facts that sat along with the stories. We recognised and identified with the violence, expressed our critiques and experiences of a wider patriarchy in a globalising world, discussed measures to address our problems. Activists and academics alike, we dispersed with the sense of the world before and beyond the film. We left with a surround sound that had swallowed the film, digested it. The audience of the film, we women, consumed the film as a part of our politics.

In contrast, when I saw the installation of The Lightning Testimonies at the Max Mueller Bhavan, at a show held from the 23a1 of January to the 6th of March, the register was traumatic, to say the least. The trauma, as I entered the black box, came out of not knowing where to look, where to fix my gaze, how to look, how to fix my gaze. Myopic eyes that make me fret in the black box, made comprehension even more difficult. I raged inside - why is it so dark? I desperately looked for Manorama's shawl, Sabitri's Dopdi - things that I remembered from my earlier viewing of The Lightning Testimonies. I looked for the familiar and did not find it. The stools in the gallery seemed uncomfortable viewing stations; sounds came from everywhere and made coordination between images and sound difficult. The fragmentation was immense, I had to simply sit down on the floor and collapse in surrender. I was on an unfamiliar ground, seeking it familiar. The power of The Lightning Testimonies, the art installation as opposed to The Lightning Testimonies, the documentary film, -struck me. I realised that this state of un-comprehension of the known, the familiar, immediately collapsed into an aesthetic experience that echoed memories and comprehensive maps of incomprehension. The gallery became a site for my own journey into the memory of violence, the sense of daily helplessness and the regular efforts at fragmented resolutions. I instantly fathomed and experienced the multiple levels of my existential response to political violence against the gendered body. In contrast to my experience of seeing the film in the University context where after the stunned silence at the end of the film we released ourselves through collective conversations, in the black box of the gallery there was no escape, no release. The Lightning Testimonies here, held me brutally and led me gently, but it did not allow an escape, nor allow a release. I had no option but to face the screens, again and again and again. The stories told, so brilliantly by Kanwar, had no end, no beginning, in a sense. And yet they were rooted in time, in space, in history. They were stories of the human predicament - of oppression and resistance - told in a way that research articles and fact-finding reports do not tell. This telling makes us humane in a way that only the solitude of facing art can.

As I reflect on the two registers, I imagine a third. I see The Lightning Testimonies or Kanwar's other work exhibited at the Max Mueller Bhavan, The Sovereign Forest [3], as visual ethnographies of contemporary India. Hegemony of the textual is profound in the academia. With the interdisciplinary turn in knowledge-making practices, boundaries between art and social sciences are sought to be blurred. There is an increasing realisation that visual material, in general, and art in particular, is as much a process of knowledge-making as any other. For instance, Kanwar's reading room in The Lightning Testimonies places fact-finding reports and academic articles as supporting documents for his work. He establishes a link between the academia and the arts, joining hands through 'objective' research. Unlike the library, where you can browse and choose, Kanwar's reading room selects and foregrounds what he wants you to read. There is no escaping his intention or his analysis of political violence. As I imagine taking Kanwar's work into my classroom on Contemporary Sociological Theory, I ask: Is it possible to have an 'objective' view about social realities? What is the role of ideology in knowledge? How does the standpoint and location of the researcher influence the content? Does the researcher, who always has power over the researched, bring in reflexivity in his work? I would argue that while Kanwar's ethnography is deeply empathetic and has a clear political intention, it would benefit from more reflexivity. It would help if we were let into Kanwar's process of arriving at his stories and of their telling. By writing himself into his text, Kanwar, the ethnographer would help to recognise how partial, situated and subjective his work is. And that in no way does this take away from its validity.


[1] The Lightning Testimonies is both a documentary film and an eight-channel video installation on the issue of sexual violence in the public space in the Indian subcontinent. The work simultaneously presents several different narratives of sexual violence starting from the Partition of the subcontinent through sexual violence as a means that the Indian army unleashed in Nagaland and Manipur to subjugate the population, the Bangladesh war and to stories of sexual violence used against religious and caste minorities. The video black-box is supplemented by another installation which presents textual resources on sexual violence in the manner of an archive.

[2] The Bombay Ki Kahani, Mumbai Ki Zubaani campaign held various events to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992-93 riots in Bombay. The subsequent transformation of the city, from its rechristening as Mumbai to the reorganisation of the urban space to ghettoise communities and the narratives of the memories of the riots, the survivors and the struggle to re-carve their existence in the changing cityscape were dealt with in the series of programmes that this campaign organised.

[3] The Sovereign Forest is another exhibition of works by Amar Kanwar dealing with the struggles put up by Adivasis and indigenous communities of Odisha against the mining corporations and other industries that are indiscriminately and violently setting about the task of grabbing land in the region. Historical references to similar struggles in Bastar are recounted and the exhibition uses a host of strategies to make a visual documentary of this political movement.
Published in ART India The Art News Magazine of India April 2016 Volume XX Issue II
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