The large painting on the wall is of a monkey with its tail on fire,and dark eyes that are fierce or fearful,perhaps both. It is poised,frozen in time,placed against a background of violence and destruction. Like Hanuman setting Lanka on fire,the monkey is ready to set the city of Ahmedabad ablaze. The creator of the painting,Baroda-based artist Vasudha Thozhur,studies her work at the Sakshi Gallery critically. Her exhibition Beyond Pain: An Afterlife opened on Thursday simultaneously at Sakshi Gallery and Project 88. This documents the experience of the 2002 Gujarat riots,and
the trauma six ordinary girls faced afterwards.
For Thozhur,it all began with the Gujarat riots in 2002. The riots woke everybody up. Politicians,the media,lawyers,social activists and NGOs flocked to the scene. I was living in Baroda back then,and wanted to widen the scope of what art could do,of what I could do. Not just wanting to be a part of the crowd,Thozhur,with her art,wanted to bring a sense of community back among the people of the state. I wanted to present this experience through my discipline. Trauma brings an unfortunate clarity to a situation, she says.
Among many organisations helping the victims was Himmat,a womens collective formed by those widowed in Naroda Patiya,initiated by Monica Wahi and Zaid Ahmed Shaikh. Himmat was working with six girls at a refugee camp. These girls had lost their families to the riots. Thozhur began to actively take part in Himmats activities and even helped them build an art centre. We carried out workshops for drawing,painting,embroidery and also video shooting. It was all done to prepare them for work any job they might get and support themselves.
Thozhur gives a tour of the exhibition,reminiscing along the way. A short film titled Cutting Chai a collection of shaky footage of narrow lanes and houses shot by the girls,edited by Thozhur plays in the background. There are rows of small framed grey scale photographs of Ahmedabad taken post-2002. Pointing to some embroidery work done by the girls,Thozhur mentions it was important to teach them how to sew; for when something is destroyed,weaving it back into place is critical. She proceeds to her paintings,which highlight destruction,demolition and violence in the city.
A section of the exhibition displays amateur drawings and sketches by the girls. A scrawny drawing shows one of the girls standing outside a hospital,waiting to collect her sisters death certificate. Another shows women of the house looking for work after losing their father or husband. All drawings done in angry blacks,reds and greys. Thozhur quietly comments,The girls were angry and hurt. They did not want to talk about the riots. So we just let them be. Their stories came out by themselves.
Looking around at more than a decades work of collecting,documenting,and putting fragments of work together,Thozhur turns nostalgic. It all started out as a silent rebellion,and we have come a long way since, she says. For her,doing this for so many years is like carrying a secret. This needs to be seen by people. Maybe it is time we put this all behind us,and move on to another experience.