Prarthna Singh

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh

Book review by Emilia Terracciano

Far from clichéd photographs of violent protest, Prarthna Singh’s book records dissenting lives amidst the peaceful, female-led protest at Shaheen Bagh, Delhi to form a homage to what keeps the fabric of India bound together, writes Emilia Terracciano.

It’s chilly. She’s wrapped herself from waist to head in a woollen shawl. Swirling pink carnations, little indigo buds, bright saffron crocuses and crimson Kashmiri roses blossom all-over her: a winter garden of delights. She is waiting for her turn to be photographed. Today, the tarpaulin is azure, slightly crinkled in the middle. She stands before it and the photographer does her job. Soon after, she’ll walk away with a moist Polaroid developing her own reduced likeness.

A collection of poems, maps, letters, children’s drawings, photographs of women and children, Prarthna Singh’s Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh was created during the 100 days of a peaceful sit-in protest held at Shaheen Bagh – a working-class neighbourhood located on a trafficked commuter highway connecting Delhi to Noida from December 2019 until March 2020. Women and children, most of them Muslim, congregated at Shaheen Bagh to demonstrate against India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens – two bills introduced by prime minister Narendra Modi, backed by his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which passed into law in December 2019.

The Citizenship (Amendment) Act makes foreign undocumented migrants and religious refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan eligible for Indian citizenship if they are Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis or Christians, but not if they are Muslim. Defining citizenship through religion, the Act is widely reputed to be unconstitutional in a country that is (at least in principle) secular and devoted to protecting the right of civilians to practice religious freedom. The Act further marginalises India’s Muslim minority, the third largest in the world. Primarily led by women, the demonstration at Shaheen Bagh rippled across the country in the form of multiple local versions. It was only the spread of Covid-19 that brought Shaheen Bagh to a halt. After lockdown was declared in India, the military moved into the site and destroyed all the structures that grew around it like the rings of a tree: kitchens, chai-stalls, libraries and day-care spaces for children.

The female subject has long been the focus of Singh’s photographic career. Her Champion (2015–ongoing) offers a series of delicate and introspective black-and-white portraits of young female athletes training at government-run sport camps in the northern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. These pubescent figures, at once vulnerable and strong, defy normative feminine roles: the devoted wife and mother, the familial custodian, preserver of tradition and domestic keeper. “This is not the archetypical female form Indian families recognise,” explains Singh. “For me personally, this figure becomes affirmative in a very patriarchal set up. One of the reasons I get excited about women and their stories is because in the Indian media, ‘woman’ is always the passive object or victim… I want to be surrounded by radical female strength. It is both helpful and hopeful, and this is what keeps me going as a photographer.”

Upon hearing about Shaheen Bagh, Singh travelled to Delhi and took up residency at her grandmother’s home, about a 15-minute walk from the site. It was the second coldest winter since 1901. Joining as a protestor first, Singh sat in, ate, drank chai, sang and chatted to the women who had gathered at Shaheen Bagh. It was later that she became a loving witness, picked up her camera and toyed with the idea of documenting the epic sit-in. Singh organised impromptu set-ups, stretched tarpaulins for backdrops and began to record protestors’ likenesses with her camera. For every portrait taken, she created an identical Polaroid to give back to the sitter. Renamed “magic paper” (jadoo ka kaagaz) by the young girls at the site, the format acquired immediate popularity owing to the advantage of being easily and immediately available. Many more women and children turned up to queue before Singh’s camera.

The photographs included in the book are collaborative and playful; Singh refuses to frame the peaceful crowd as a dangerous collective. Contrasting the demonisation of the mob by Indian mass media, and the erasure of crowds from contemporary art photography, she focused her lens on one demonstrator at a time and delighted in photographing each sitter through a series of frontal, formal and carefully-posed portraits. Each protestor faces the viewer as a proud citizen-subject. We do not find the clichéd photographs of violent protest but a documentation of dissenting lives. There are students, children and mothers – housewives clutching handbags, purses and phones, all wearing several layers of clothes.

Perhaps the salient feature of Shaheen Bagh resides in Singh’s desire to relay something of the protestors’ arguments, intentions, radical disagreements and faith for the future. The portraits and written letters from participants are both important to underscoring this effect. Singh inserts clues and markers of this feminine multitude, and the shape-shifting spaces in which it moved, dwelled, sang, breast-fed, read, cooked and rested in between the individual portraits. Tactile and textile references are threaded into the book as photographs; women lined Shaheen Bagh with fabrics brought from home, but also engaged in acts of exchange: swapping garments, burqas and shawls. The book itself is bound in an off-white, unobtrusive fabric that does not call attention to itself as an object. Singh reminds us of the political and persistent nature of textiles in the history of India, and offers a homage to what keeps the fabric of this country bound together. Shaheen Bagh, set up by women for women, was also an impermanent shelter from the doom of domesticity. The forces of order would rather these women remain invisible and undocumented, be obscured, silenced or tormented. Singh’s book is a memorial to all those who came together to protest, generating in the process a novel vision of solidarity. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © Prarthna Singh

Emilia Terracciano is a writer, translator and lecturer in Modern Art History at the University of Manchester.

Poulomi Basu


Essay by Emilia Terracciano

Fields smoulder at night. Through a forest clearing a teenage girl walks with her rifle. Half dressed bodies lie by an upturned truck surrounded by mobile cameras. A spray-painted man poses in the guise of a metallic Gandhi at a party, perhaps in a village. Men and women gather comically for a selfie on a raised patch of land, a tiny drone hovers above them. Forests blaze. In her latest photo-documentary Centralia, Poulomi Basu presents a deranged journey that leaves one giddy, slightly sick. Often shot at night, in pitch darkness, Basu uses bright colours, high shutter speeds, low aperture and shallow depth of field, creating a centrifugal, film-like atmosphere.

Centralia takes its name from a near-ghost mining town in Pennsylvania, US. Bought up by colonial agents from native American tribes in 1749, the mineral-rich borough became a thriving mining hub up until the world war years and global depression. Declared uninhabitable in the aftermath of a subterranean fire and the spread of toxic methane gases in the 1960s, Centralia’s residents were forcibly evicted by ‘eminent domain’ in 1992. Virtually a non-place – Postal Services suspended its zip code in 2002 – the creepy municipality is mined today by horror film crews.

Basu dislocates space-time expectations, connecting the shrinkage of mining in Centralia to the expansion of these extractive activities in the global south: central and eastern India. For Basu, the collapse of this little-known US town – with its hellish sinkholes, toxic vapours, rubble homes and melting asphalt – could prefigure the destruction of the mineral-rich areas of India. Seemingly removed from the economic and political realities of Centralia, these regions are the focus of Basu’s hallucinatory reflection – one that ponders the process of corporate mining and the violence that accompanies the extraction of minerals from the soil. ‘Centralia,’ Basu writes, ‘is the future.’ Economic booms and busts of the global economy may drive Centralia but the subject of the project is the protracted war waged by the Indian military-corporate complex against tribal communities (Adivasi) over lands and natural resources. Basu exposes the violence that accompanies bipolar development narratives in India: between those who endorse the project of corporate industrialisation and those who oppose it.

Murky and complex, the portrayal of the Maoist insurgent group People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) divides academics, critics and artists in India. Outdated authoritarian ideologies and rigid hierarchies certainly structure the guerrilla group, whose commitment to a ‘protracted people’s war’ against the state and the enclosure of the commons has caused an escalation of violence against civilians. PLGA’s mimetic warfare strategies, following the Maoist dictum that the guerrilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea, formidably pits innocent civilians against the paramilitary. The latter retaliates and destroys villages, performs extra-juridical killings, torture, rapes and arrests. Bodies are dressed up in military fatigues: identities become blurred on both sides of the divide. ‘Even if you cover this honestly, there are so many things you don’t know. The Maoists won’t tell you about them, the police always lie. The villagers don’t tell you anything. So how well can you really cover this?’ writes a local journalist interviewed by Basu.

Basu elevates obfuscation to a formal strategy, an approach that enacts a deliberate breakdown of ordinary vision and of knowledge bound to storytelling. Here, the possibility for visibility and transparency, myths that are fundamental to political and legal Euro-American discourses (and documentary photographic processes), are repeatedly questioned. Basu performs the theatrics of forensic documentary tropes on crime scenes but also inserts clues that appear to have been meddled with for and before the camera. Here the bloody, severed head of a baby goat, there the ghostly remains of a camp.

Centralia withholds the possibility for lyricism when figuring the PLGA’s armed resistance. In so doing, she does not abdicate critical questioning about insurgents’ political intentions, and the horrific consequences of their revolutionary politics for civilians. Moving through gorgeous forests, Basu resists the conventions of pastoral framing. Nature is militarised, trees offer makeshift shelters to humans and their weapons: rifles rest against trees before pujas (acts of worship) in eerie surroundings. Basu dislikes the term ‘embedded’ to describe her personal engagement with the guerrilla groups over the years. She prefers the term ‘immersed’. For sure, Basu has enjoyed the protection of Maoist units in gaining privileged access to inaccessible conflict zones but refrains from identifying with the insurgents. Intimacy and proximity are not available to her and she remains a stranger amongst these unlikely, camouflaged comrades. Such distance can be gleaned in the way she includes yellowing, gimmicky images that appear static and calmly classical in their staging. Basu, who has devoted her career to documenting the resilience of women (To Conquer Her Land, A Ritual of Exile and Isis Mothers), does share with us the militancy of PLGA’s women. She includes pixelated mugshots of deceased militant female martyrs as well as portraits of women in uniforms bearing old rifles. Such an approach suggests empathy for a way of life that resonates with Italian-American feminist Silvia Federici’s understanding of ‘a joyful militancy.’ This account of female resistance can resonate with more historically iconic examples: think of Vietnam or the Sandinista guerrilla fighters in Nicaragua. Women did play significant roles in these guerrilla fights, operating in jungles against powerful imperialist powers; social revolution was a genuine possibility and armed conflict no mere defensive strategy. It is difficult to gauge the extent to which Basu may identify with her characters. A strong sense of sympathy transpires from her shots but only a brittle heroism can be sensed. Male and female comrades appear fragmented in the fight, perhaps isolated. Moreover, it is the men who handle whatever primitive technology is available, for example, a radio. Basu limits camaraderie and its idealisation to one shot of a man and his dog.

Open-ended, Centralia offers a nightmare account of an ongoing war. Basu ultimately offers no release from this nightmare and opens up her lenses to the shelter of the night sky.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Poulomi Basu

Emilia Terracciano is an academic and writer based in London and Oxford. She is a postdoctoral Leverhulme Fellow at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, where she teaches the course Globalisation, Photography and the Documentary Turn. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the Global South. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India was published by I.B. Tauris in 2017. Terracciano also writes for The Caravan, Modern Painters and Frieze.