It has been a period of intense activity after your incarceration at Keraniganj to getting back to Chobi Mela X (February 28-March 9). How did you manage to steer the festival in the direction you had envisioned?
I don’t see myself as being at the helm — rather, as someone who is holding hands, making sure nothing falls through the cracks, and, sometimes, mopping up. My major role was being involved in the collective decision that the festival would go ahead. Given the environment of fear, it was an act of defiance. I was still in jail and there was no certainty about when I might come out. The show was to go ahead regardless. The culture of fear meant that we had become a toxic entity. It was dangerous to be ‘Shahidul-friendly’. We knew local organisations would be scared of being associated with Drik (Alam’s gallery and photo library), Pathshala (his photography school), and certainly Chobi Mela It was highly unlikely that public venues like Shilpakala Academy and the National Museum would be available to us (we did apply). We designed a barebone programme without compromising on quality. This led to a new level of improvisation. The construction of the Drik-Pathshala building was halted and the building converted into a gallery complex instead. Place — this year’s theme — became more relevant than we’d ever imagined.
I am aware that the changed circumstances resulted in some modifications with regard to the venues. How did you adjust your curatorial vision with these changes?
We wanted Chobi Mela X to be more experiential. Past visitors were able to compare earlier shows with the new visual approach of contemporary artists. We turned our limitations into attributes, using the unfinished nature of the main venue to allow far more experimental site-specific installations than would have been feasible in a conventional space. The study of archives was another major component. Now that Pathshala is affiliated to Dhaka University, education was a significant theme. For the first time, we had a film screening programme on stories around photography or photographers. There were films on Sebastiao Salgado, Robert Frank, Robert Capa and Edward Burtynsky and a film made on Rupert Grey’s journey to Chobi Mela by Sharon Stone. It was more about the world of photography than about pressing the shutter.
Almost as an act of defiance, you had on board some political activists and thinkers such as Arundhati Roy. In one of your earlier editions, I remember, you had invited Mahasweta Devi…
Yes, having Arundhati Roy with us was very special. It was her first trip to Bangladesh. It did have its own drama, with the government trying to scuttle the programme by revoking permission to hold the event, by making up a cock-and-bull story about a programme by the Prime Minister. They then cancelled the new venue saying we needed permission from a different police station. Eventually, I believe, they were shamed into backing off, but not before they became the laughing stock of the entire country. It was a great talk and over 800 people who had waited hours to hear her, stayed glued to her words for nearly two hours.
You had once said, ‘The shutter speed of 125th of a second reserved for momentous slices of time, never slows down enough to listen to the sighs of the silent.’ Ironically, you had to face a situation where you were kept in forcible isolation. How would these extraordinary circumstances define your thoughts at the present moment?
I felt it important to take a step back and see the penal system with a broader lens. Basic needs, the delivery of which development is traditionally measured by, are met in jail conditions. Yet, incarceration is considered an extreme form of punishment. Why then, while outside, should we accept the dictum that freedom can be set aside in the interest of ‘development’? Why should the complete erosion of our freedoms be accepted as a necessary evil in the pursuit of a higher GDP? Why should we accept the illusion of freedom while accepting that we will not have a voice and be deprived of our constitutional rights? Why should fear be normalised and subservience seen as a virtue? What will it take to break the chains that shackle our mind? Yes, I was deprived of the friendship, love and comradery of my fellow warriors, but unless their companionship brought along with it the ability to share our thoughts, to question, to think independently, this proximity would only be a mirage. Freedom would remain a distant dream.
You mentioned this is the last time you will be involved as the festival director of Chobi Mela. What next?
Yes, this is my last term as director. Having founded the festival and nurtured it for nearly 20 years, I believe it is time to hand over to a younger group. Because I was in jail, they have already played a much bigger role than before. Our new building will be ready by the end of the year and both Pathshala and Drik will share the premises. My goal will be to ensure smooth integration between the two organisations and that there is greater synergy. I will continue to facilitate, but hope my inputs will be more conceptual and cerebral than material. I hope to find more time to write poetry.
Tell us about some of your new projects.
For my retrospective at Rubin Museum, NYC, in November, I plan to produce new work based upon my period in jail. It will be a collaborative project with inmates I have interacted with and mentored. It will have artwork, poems and songs by them, but also photographs taken by me after coming out, and my prison notes. I have worked on projects involving the absence of people. Now I’ll be working on a photographic project involving the absence of photographs. (German publisher) Gerhard Steidl will also be publishing a new book on this work, so the Rubin Museum will have both the exhibition and a book launch.
Ina Puri is a writer, biographer, art curator and collector.