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A mammoth ship-shaped structure, decorated in hues of red, yellow and blue, awaited visitors at the studio of renowned contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram. Tucked in the narrow serpentine lanes of Delhi’s Aya Nagar, Wednesday evening saw a host of popular names from the art world — Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Achia Anzi — welcomed to sit in the pitch dark hollow of the ship. As they sat in this space, devoid of any light, flashes of circular white lights circled over head, ship sounds and sirens filled up the silence and commands by British radar officers, actor Danish Iqbal’s voice speaking the views of Naval Strike Committee’s President MA Khan and archival sound recordings of eye witness accounts, attempted to recreate the suspense that ensued on February 18, 1946, when a section of ratings from the Royal Indian Navy opened rebellion against the British officers in Bombay to protest against the treatment meted out to them regarding pay, food and racial discrimination. This project — the end result of efforts put in by Sundaram, cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, and enchanting soundwork of British sound artist David Chapman — revisits one of the prominent events from the country’s past. Titled Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, the installation will be stationed at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai.
Sundaram’s steel-and-aluminium creation, which turns into a 40-minute long performance space where the soundtrack and lights serve as the protagonists, is riddled with history, created with the help of archives sourced from the Imperial War Museum in London, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge, Churchill College, The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Maharashtra State Archive, among others.
When the mutiny was declared on the HMIS Talwar, the Signal Training Establishment of the Royal Indian Navy in Colaba, over 10,000 naval ratings took charge of 66 ships and on-shore naval establishments. The city’s industrial labour force soon joined hands, forcing Bombay to shut down. The curfew led to the death of over 200 people on the streets.
The British responded with their armed forces, on sea, air and land, and the strike ended on February 23 when the Naval Central Strike Committee was asked for black flags of surrender.
“With this work, I’m crossing into a new medium that explores the historical aspect of a moment appearing only in the footnotes of modern history. I thought it was worth more exploration. When certain things end in failure, they prompt you to relook at them and re-examine them”, says 73-year-old Sundaram.
“With the number of people killed in Bombay by the British, there was little response by the Congress to stop it. The death of innocents did have a deep impact. It only marked the beginning of the end of the Empire,” he adds.
The project is a continuation of Sundaram’s massive installation from 1998 at Durbar Hall in Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial, one that traced history from the late 19th century till the Partition. Sundaram is quick to add that the structure, upon its opening, will feature an archive room to shed more light on its history and significance, alongside books written since the ’50s, that offer vivid insights into this revolt, such as BC Dutt’s Mutiny of Innocents.
According to London-based Chapman, who teaches filmmaking at the University of East London, it is an important moment in the history that doesn’t suit any other official narrative.
“We thought about the issue and it served as a motivation because this was an integral part of history that is not well-known,” says Chapman, who has used sounds and interviews that were recorded at that time, British millitary records, eye witnesses recalling accounts of their experiences, apart from massive amount of text unearthed from numerous archives. These were then voiced by actors in India and London.
“We looked at telegrams and newspaper reports and tried different ways of bringing them into the sonification of the piece. There are also sound effects I recorded near the Thames, some of them captured underwater with the help of hydrophones to create atmospheric sounds. Some of the sounds belong to that time, like the gun shots. I tried to bring as much sound into the present,” says Chapman, who has also included jazz that played in the Bombay of those times apart from some new music in this monumental piece.
The mutiny has been regarded by historians, as one among a series of key events, ranging from Quit India Movement and the Indian National Army’s heroism to workers’ strikes and peasant upsurges, that marked the beginning of the end for British rule in India, but somehow got lost in the pages of history.
Rajadhyaksha says that there is disagreement on what happened and everyone tends to think it is a solved problem.
But later, one finds that it is not solved and is in a conundrum. The mismatch was something that made him take up the project.
“I am a Bombay person and being someone who belonged to that era, I remember people talking about this mutiny as a fairly major event, but today most people in the city don’t know that there was such a thing. That got us thinking about this situation. Some thought that it was just the problem of a strike, others say that these were just a bunch of misguided fellows, and some say that it was an interesting event where many things could have happened. It is a question of diverse political positions existing. We had a major event and nobody recorded it. Years later, we are trying to deal with it as though it will now make some kind of retrospective sense,” he says.
Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 will be stationed at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai from March 17-25.