In writing a novel, a fiction writer has the literary justification for creating a universe based on her imagination. Similarly, a figurative or abstract artist can twist what he sees and turn it into the vision in his mind. The novelist has the licence to make up stuff. The photographer, however, is handcuffed to reality, burdened to capture what he sees and reproduce it faithfully, without distortion or deviation.
But, as writers like Susan Sontag have shown, once a photo is in the public domain, its interpretation is left to the viewer. Photographs have been manipulated to tell stories in particular ways. What happens in the world of deep fakes, where such fake images can be weaponised? Social media abounds with images of atrocities that may have occurred at another place and another time, or may even have been staged, but which are used to rouse and incite a community that perceives itself to be aggrieved.
In the days before computer-aided wizardry enabled “photo-shopping”, photographers used a range of techniques, playing with light and shadows to highlight particular parts of an image. Documentary photographers and most professional news organisations still impose penalties on photographers who alter an image to enhance a story or create aesthetic appeal.
The change began slowly. During the Soviet era, politicians no longer in favour were air-brushed and removed from subsequent publications of the same images. Some photographers have been accused of staging images with an eye on posterity or awards. In this situation, how does an artist use photographs to tell a story?
Parvathi Nayar, an artist, sculptor, writer, poet and photographer, has managed to do this, narrating history and family memoir through images. Trained in the UK and having lived in South-East Asia till her return to India, she has collaborated with her niece Nayantara, a playwright and researcher, to develop a multi-sensory show, Chicken Run, which was shown at the recently concluded Chennai Photo Biennale.
The InKo Centre, which promotes Korean-Indian cultural exchange, supported the project, which draws on Parvathi’s father’s experience as an army officer during the Korean War (1950-53), when India sent a peacekeeping force, the Custodian Force of India (CFI), to maintain peace in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and protect prisoners of war (POWs).
Parvathi’s father, Major T.N.R. Nayar, was chosen by Major General S.P.P Thorat as his assistant military adviser in the advance mission team that went to Korea. Parvathi was intrigued by the stories she had heard from her father, and of stories of Korean refugees, who, at the end of the war, chose to come to India rather than return to their homes when their country was divided at the 38th Parallel North. With Nayantara, she went through old photographs, staged new ones, and created an imaginary and imaginative narrative about a Korean refugee in Chennai, a Mr H, who ran a chicken farm in the 1950s in what was then Madras.
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The biennale had to be shown virtually owing to the pandemic. This turned out to be advantageous for Chicken Run, for seeing the images serially would have forced the viewer to follow a particular flow of the story. Online, it is possible to dip in and out of specific experiences, click links, and discover hidden histories.
This show is part of Limits Of Change, Parvathi’s wider, InKo Centre-supported project drawing on her father’s writings, seeking to highlight the effects of war, particularly the stranger, more unpredictable consequences: of lives displaced, plans undone, and identity interrupted. The geography of the DMZ where the POWs were kept influenced the choice of the title. For they were kept behind barbed wire fences, and the CFI patrolled the camps. The strips between the camps were called “chicken run”.
The fictional photo-narrative tells the story of Mr H, who has grown up in rural Korea and is imprisoned during the war. When the war ends in 1953 with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement, the two Koreas that emerge—north and south—each want the prisoners to return home, because each prisoner “lost” to the other side represents an ideological defeat. Mr H, and thousands of others, specifically request they not be sent back home. Mr H comes to India. Building the story is a fictional curator, P, who is putting together a show that follows Mr H’s life at the People’s Museum of Chennai.
The war may have ended but it did not mean there was peace. In 2017, I happened to be in Seoul. I got a chance to visit the DMZ and I saw villages that lived with the echoes of shelling, experiencing loud propaganda songs. People had tied ribbons on barbed wires, hoping for peace. This strip of land lies barren and mined, and the countries have built tall flagpoles, revealing a peculiar edifice complex.
The Korean War had the international community worried about the possibility of World War III. The UN requested India to send a contingent of peacekeepers, and then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru agreed, sending the 6,000-strong CFI. Curator P’s father was among the soldiers.
What drove Parvathi to the project were the written accounts of her father’s reminiscences, which he titled The Limit Of Change. “Of course there is a personal journey in the project,” she says. “I knew my father as a general in the army, a lover of art and poetry who enjoyed taking videos and photos, a gardener. He was a just man, firm but gentle, who always encouraged us to see the full picture without judging hastily. But I never knew him as a soldier. As for Nayantara, she has heard stories of her grandfather but had never met him. We were both discovering something of him and his world—and we wanted to let that influence our art-making in subtle ways. We decided early on that it wouldn’t be a regular biography. Rather, we wanted to use his thoughts—and my memories of him—as a springboard to talk about history as an account of extraordinary events lived by ordinary people.”
They explored not only his papers but also his personal effects: uniforms, medals, keepsakes, photographs and videos. Working on the project, they were seeing the Korea and India of 1954. As they dug deeper, they found several historical and thematic threads, involving his military career in Burma and Singapore during World War II, his time as a peacekeeper in Korea, and his service in Kashmir and at the Sino-Indian border. “However, it was his time in Korea, and India’s role in the Korean War as protectors and guards to prisoners of war who did not want to return to their home countries, that fascinated us,” says Nayantara.
There was a strong connection with Chennai: It was from Madras that the forces left for Korea; it is in Chennai that many Koreans now live, many as expatriate workers with Korean companies (one of whom acts as Mr H in the photographs). “We believe that this engagement between India and Korea is worth re-examining, to uncover these stories of war and peace, and not least, to remember the newly minted Indian Army’s foray into the world as peacekeepers, to protect and guard after a terrible war,” Parvathi says.
Indeed, some 80 Korean and Chinese POWs came to India. What interested Parvathi was how people navigate cycles of violence and how historical events enter and reorder our imaginations. “In Korea, the CFI was a protector, meant to keep POWs such as Mr H safe from the vested political interests around them. In India, Mr H would have taken a similar role, as a protector of his chickens, as he lay barbed wire around his chicken coops to keep away actual foxes,” Parvathi says.
Their work, Parvathi says, exists in the space of historical novels and films inspired by real events. They were scrupulous about not making things up, but chose to “draw out, stretch, magnify, and flip these facts to see if we could reach the emotional core of the events being described”, Nayantara says. When they saw a picture that moved them or read an interesting fragment, they speculated on what could have existed around it, what kind of a world it occurred in, and what the larger backdrop could have been.
This is history seen through the perspective of the human at the bottom of the hill, not the one at the peak. The use of video and photography may seem disconcerting, since both are meant to document reality, but that juxtaposition makes it more fascinating. “We loved the response of several viewers who said they wished these people actually existed,” Nayantara says. Chicken Run treads that grey zone, between facts and truth.
Chicken Run can be viewed at https://www.inkocentre.org/chennai_photo_biennale.html. For a walk-through of the virtual installation, visit https://vimeo.com/679124069.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York