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Monday, November 29, 2021

A new series of picture postcards explores conversion among the Khasi people

Tarun Bhartiya's set of 100 postcards show an uncomfortable story of conversion unfolding in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya

Written by Benita Fernando |
Updated: October 16, 2021 6:38:23 pm
MeghalayaA view of Tyrna village with its Presbyterian and Catholic churches. Catholic and Presbyterian missionaries started arriving in the Khasi Hills in the 19th century. Today, the two churches have the largest denominations in Meghalaya. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

Postcards can be cute or sentimental, and in Tarun Bhartiya’s new series, they are political as well. Bhartiya’s set of 100 postcards from the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya show an uncomfortable story of conversion that unfolds across continents, communities and centuries. Bhartiya, 50, is a filmmaker, poet and political activist who has previously made films such as ‘Brief Life of Insects’ and ‘The Last Train in Nepal’. This time, he turns his lens to the faiths expressed among the matrilineal Khasi people, from those who converted to Christianity to those who stuck to the old faith. Niam/Faith/Hynñiewtrep: Unaddressed Picture Postcards from Khasi Hills is on view at BayArt Gallery, Cardiff, Wales, as part of Diffusion 2021, Welsh International Festival of Photography. It will soon be presented in India as part of the Chennai Photo Biennale.

Meghalaya On June 22 1841, a Welsh Presbyterian missionary by the name of Rev. Thomas Jones arrived in Sohra, also known as Cherrapunji, then the capital of undivided Assam. Settling among the Khasi people, Jones didn’t manage to convert any Khasi as was expected from a missionary. Instead, his contributions were of a related but somewhat different nature. He became known as the missionary who gave the Khasi people a Roman script with Welsh orthography, through the first translation of the Bible into Khasi. Given this and other pioneering contributions, Jones is regarded as a hero, with memorials, such as this one at Sohra, and institutions that bear his name and even a public holiday on 22nd June every year commemorating his arrival. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

At first glance, Bhartiya’s photographs of cloud-dotted hilltops, church steeples, local people, ceremonies and rituals come across as the typical material of postcards. We want to turn a curious eye to these views of far-flung places, wishing we were there. However, the postcards stop short of being touristy and there is an unsettling note to them. In this close-up view of the Christian and Niam Tynrai (the old, original faith) beliefs, the reverse sides of the postcards are printed with snippets from writings by missionaries and evangelists, and news headlines of communal violence. A majority of the printed text are also extracts from Uttar Pradesh’s infamous anti-conversion law that came about in late 2020.

Rev Makdoh Going for Sunday Service. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

The postcard has had a revival of late, particularly by those who are trying to resuscitate the dying mail system to convey art and poetry, with its appeal in evoking a time gone by. “The picture postcard is something people buy and forget quickly; it’s old and quaint but here, you are suddenly confronted by the contemporary,” says Bhartiya.

Meghalaya U khaw pyneh rngiew (sanctification of rice) ceremony belonging to the Niam Tynrai or the old faith. According to the faith, the Khasi trace their origins to Hynñiewtrep or seven huts belonging to heavenly families who were left behind on earth when a tree was cut down. U khaw pyneh rngiew is performed at the Lum Sohpetbneng Peak, where the tree is believed to have stood. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

Bhartiya shot the series mainly in 2006 and 2016, when revivals (evangelical meetings that Bhartiya recalls as “transformative experiences”) were organised by the Presbyterian Church in Meghalaya. The Presbyterian Church and the Roman Catholic Church are the largest denominations among the Khasi people and have a history of evangelism, persecution and challengers.

Meghalaya A publicity portrait of the Khasi by the Ghoshal Brothers for a mission exhibition (1900). For this series, Bhartiya looked into the private collections, such as that of the Ghoshal Brothers, and the Welsh National Library in Aberystwyth, Wales. ““We fetishise archives just because people think an image from the archive is truer than an image I take now. It’s almost as if the present, the way we understand our times, is less valuable or evidentiary. People see archival photographs as stock images and that makes me a bit uncomfortable,” Bhartiya says. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

“In the usual narrative, people think missionaries fooled people, which is a simplistic way of understanding. People in the Khasi Hills discuss religious belief systems and make a conscious choice on whether they want to be Christian or not. Even indigenously, people challenged missionaries [in the 19th and 20th centuries]. But when the right-wing speaks about conversion, tribals are painted as innocent victims of missionaries,” he says.

Meghalaya Kong Khasimon Phanbuh, an indigenous faith Khasi intellectual. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya) Anniversary of the Seng Khasi, an indigenous faith movement. The Seng Khasi was established in 1899 as a way to encourage Niam Tynrai and to resist conversion. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

The postcard pictures present a more complex, syncretic narrative to the history of conversion in the Khasi tribe and their lives today. Monoliths belonging to the old faith have the same aura as the gravestones of the Christians. Passionate and sombre congregations are part of both the Christian groups as well as the religious ceremonies of the old faith. A choir dressed in traditional jainsem at a synod, water for sanctification, a baptism, a goat sacrifice—the images of the faiths reflect each other, while managing to convey their peculiarities.

Meghalaya Shillong 2020. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

The idea for this series came from a visit to Wales in the UK, where he saw picture postcards from missionaries of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church, now known as the Presbyterian Church, who came to the Khasi Hills in the 19th century. The link between the Welsh and the Khasi is a running theme in the postcards, as much as it is historically, too. Bhartiya injects some archival photographs into the series, such as a publicity photograph of Khasi women for a mission exhibition from 1900 or Khasi evangelist U Larsing with Welsh missionaries from 1861. It may feel as if time hasn’t passed, such as in “Rev Makdoh Going for Sunday Service” (2017), but we are quickly brought back to the present when we see ancestral monoliths painted over with images of Hindu deities right at the end of the series. Are these the new missionaries, one wonders.

Meghalaya Milk tea and red tea for the congregation. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

To the explosion of Christian faith among the Khasi, Bhartiya offers vignettes from the Seng Khasi, an organisation established in 1899 as a way to encourage Niam Tynrai and to resist conversion. In recent times, those who choose to leave Christianity and follow Seng Khasi have been often clubbed under “ghar wapsi”, a term from Hindutva anti-conversion groups which has been applied here despite the distinct quality of the old faith from Hinduism. Despite these polarising histories, the Seng Khasi and the Christians find space together in Bhartiya’s postcards.

Meghalaya Open air Sunday service. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)

Bhartiya, who grew up in Shillong, is not ethnically Khasi. He came here in 1980, when he was in Class IV. He is married to a Khasi Anglican. “All of us are outsiders at some level. If you are Presbyterian, you don’t belong to the old faith, even if you are Khasi,” he says. Yet, he believes that he belongs to the place and the people “in terms of conversations”. It’s why the postcards resist being an ethnographic study of a tribe in flux. “I can’t have a touristy eye and focus on food or dances or waterfalls. I am not interested in selling the place.”

Meghalaya Monoliths belonging to the old faith are painted over by Hindu deities, a recent development concurrent with the rise of Hindutva groups. In recent times, those who choose to leave Christianity and follow Seng Khasi have been often called “ghar wapsi”, a term from Hindutva anti-conversion groups which has been applied here despite how distinct the old faith is from Hinduism. (Source: Tarun Bhartiya)


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