On June 12, 1996, Kalpana Chakma — a young leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women’s Federation — was abducted at gunpoint from her home in Rangamati. She was only 23 and has not been found since. While her captors were allegedly members of the Bangladesh army, against whose rule she had repeatedly spoken, asking for equal rights, the abductors have not been established.
Years later, though, Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam has followed her footsteps — the last journey taken by the human-rights activist in the Chittagong hill tracts of Bangladesh. In 2013, he walked along the path that Kalpana had taken near her home at Lallyaghona village and collected objects “which might have witnessed her abduction”. “Since the investigators had ignored the eye witness accounts of the paharis, I decided to call upon these ‘silent witnesses’. Replicating the forensic techniques used in such an investigation, I examined the objects at high resolution using microscopes,” says Alam, 60, who collected objects such as the bark from a tree, a stone from the well that she sat upon and an old typewriter from the party meeting room, among others.
“It is astounding that a nation born out of a struggle to speak one’s mother tongue can deny that same right to its own citizens. The story of genocide, occupation and imperialism in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, replicates in many ways, our own struggle for independence. The repressed was replicating the behaviour of the repressor. It went against the very principles that Bangladesh was built upon. As a citizen and an artist, I had to respond,” adds the photographer and social activist.
His investigations and experiences have been depicted in the medium most familiar to him, through photographs in the exhibition “Kalpana’s Warriors” at Gallery Art and Aesthetic, Delhi. The display includes photographs of the Chittagong hill tracts and laser-etched portraits of people who have been seeking justice for Kalpana, requesting for investigation of her abduction, including Anu Muhammad, an economist and political activist, Sara Hossain, a human-rights lawyer, and Manosh Chowdhury, an anthropology professor at Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University.
Their photographs by Alam have been laser etched on straw mats, reportedly the only furniture in Kalpana’s room and commonly used by the Chakma community (one of the largest ethnic groups in the Chittagong Hill Tracts). The laser beams, meanwhile, represent the fire set to several villages near Kalpana’s home, right before her disappearance. “Kalpana’s brother Kishan Chakma had mentioned in his interview that in a previous meeting between Kalpana and her abductor Lieutenant Ferdous, she had spoken out against the military having burned their villages. So I chose fire to produce the images. The laser device used related to the garment factories, which use laser beams to burn designer tears in jeans,” notes Alam. His photography school Pathshala “nurtures critical thinking in visual storytellers”.
Known to have taken the last official portrait of Nelson Mandela, one of Alam’s most renowned series is “Crossfire” (2010), where he confronted the extra-judicial executions carried out by Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion. Believed to have murdered over a 1,000 people, Alam framed images of the last things victims saw before their death, using torchlight at night, replicating conditions under which the attacks took place. “A show that had (at least in visual terms) no blood, no violence and no direct references to killings, would require the government to come up with a creative justification for stopping us,” says Alam.
While he has travelled with his tale of Kalpana across the world — from Dhaka to Dali, Malta and London next month — the photographer intends to add a virtual reality experience in the display. Also on the horizon is a project that looks at Bangladeshi migrants in Malaysia and their families back home. “I expect to be making the trip with some of the migrants and returning with them to their homes. I’ll look at how things may have changed. I also hope to get the women’s perspective,” says Alam.
The exhibition at Gallery Art and Aesthetic, Lado Sarai, is on till March 5