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Keeping the memories of the Marichjhapi Massacre alive

Photographer Soumya Sankar Bose’s latest body of work looks back at the horrific tragedy that unfolded in 1979

Detail from a work from ‘Where The Birds Never Sing’. Courtesy: Experimenter & Soumya Sankar Bose.
Detail from a work from ‘Where The Birds Never Sing’. Courtesy: Experimenter & Soumya Sankar Bose.

Soumya Sankar Bose admits he may have succumbed to a morass of depression during the pandemic had it not been for his current project. Where The Birds Never Sing, a body of work he began in 2017, came to a close earlier this year. On display in the online viewing room of the Kolkata-based Experimenter gallery, it also exists as a limited-edition book, the production of which kept Bose busy during the lockdown.

The 30-year-old photographer is, to borrow the title of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, “an artist of the floating world”. He wanders far and wide, in the hinterland of Bengal as well as the psyche of his subjects, in search of stories, not merely visuals. His earlier work—Let’s Sing An Old Song, about the jatra artists who perform folk theatre, and Full Moon On A Dark Night, focusing on the dreams and desires of the LGBTQ+ community—exhume forgotten memories, buried pasts. His latest is no different in its attempt to recover the history of violence visited upon the more than 100,000 refugees who fled East Bengal (now Bangladesh) after Partition.

“My own family was one such, they moved here in the 1950s,” Bose says on the phone. While the upper-caste refugees managed to settle in the city, the underprivileged were less fortunate. They were shunted on to central India first, en masse, where they were barely given state aid and faced the hostility of the locals. Finally, when the Left Front came to power in West Bengal in 1977, this hapless lot was shifted to Marichjhapi Island in the Sundarbans. But the state government changed its mind and decided to forcibly send them back to central India in 1979. On 31 January of that year, the police launched a full-blown attack, unleashing death and destruction on the refugees.

'Where The Birds Never Sing' by Soumya Sankar Bose.
'Where The Birds Never Sing' by Soumya Sankar Bose.

The Marichjhapi Massacre, as the event has come to be known, has drawn scholarly interest. It forms the bedrock of The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh’s celebrated novel, though it doesn’t inhabit the public’s consciousness in any enduring sense. Over the last few years, Bose documented the remnants of this tragedy, the travails faced by the refugees in Marichjhapi, which resonate with the state of our world. The National Register of Citizens for Assamand the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act sought to redefine the status of people seeking refuge in India, leading to a huge public outcry. But Bose isn’t interested in making any overt political statement or drawing attention to the bigotry of ruling dispensations. “I wanted to tell the story of the misuse of power,” he says, “that’s why I haven’t mentioned any of the governments responsible for Marichjhapi.”

Bose’s surreal, cryptic, and haunting imagery reinvents the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. In his case, each photograph is a memento of many lives lost, a site of trauma that refuses to heal. And yet, instead of documentary realism, Bose uses a richly inventive idiom to convey the essential truth of his project. “We don’t need to violate someone’s privacy to tell their story, do we?” he asks. “Why would I want the victim to be victimized all over again?” So, rather than putting the face of the actual subject in his work, he often gets others to enact a certain scenario.

The image of a man lying on a boat on brackish water stirs a sense of desolation—the eye is drawn deeper, beyond the geographical specificity. In another series, a woman reclines against the branch of a tree, like an omen of doom. Bose mentions Robert Capa’s controversial 1936 photograph of a falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War—a vision of the horror of the conflict. “It may have been staged but does that diminish the relevance of its message?” he asks.

'Where The Birds Never Sing' by Soumya Sankar Bose.
'Where The Birds Never Sing' by Soumya Sankar Bose.

In his earlier works, Bose had relied heavily on a language at once dream-like and threaded with the trappings of the everyday. Where The Birds Never Sing also combines images of landscape, people and archival documents to clear the fog of forgetting and falsehood that history is so easily susceptible to. And while his earlier works have found homes in galleries and on the internet, Where The Birds Never Sing also exists in the physicality of a book, more accessibly priced than prints and widely distributed.

“Most of the survivors of Marichjhapi I spoke to, who are in their 80s and 90s now, asked me why I am not creating a book which would exist as a document for the future,” Bose says. “I may be the last generation meeting them and I don’t want their memories to get lost in the labyrinths of cyberspace or stay confined to exhibitions.”

Where The Birds Never Sing is on show till 31 December.

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