“I always agree to talk about my work and then regret it afterwards,” says Delhi-based documentary filmmaker Amar Kanwar, who has put up an exhibition titled “The Lightening Testimonies”. “I think the work should speak for itself,” he adds. Kanwar has created a video installation, with eight projections, which brings together testimonies of women who have been subjected to sexual violence during conflicts — and the people in his films have plenty to say.
Their experiences take place in different periods of time, across various places in India. Kanwar has included women who accuse the Army of sexual violence in conflict zones of Northeast India and Kashmir, Dalit women who suffer public rape and humiliations, Muslim and Hindu women who were targeted during the 1992-93 Bombay riots and 2002 Gujarat riots. He also includes testimonies from women “abducted” during the Partition in 1947 and the mass rape that took place during the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971.
His treatment of these stories is what makes the exhibition a novel experience. The eight films are projected simultaneously on the four black walls of the room while the viewer sits in the middle, surrounded by them. They all start out with the same scenes but slowly transition into different films. The effect is initially overwhelming while the viewer tries to watch or simply keep track of all the stories, but eventually the realization dawns that each testimony reverberates with the same themes of power (or lack of it), pain, and remembrance.
“Often, we try and attribute these occasions of sexual violence during conflict to reasons that exist only in a particular time, in specific circumstances, or we just put the blame on temporary bouts of insanity, ” says Kanwar, adding, “But bringing them all together, we see that there are deeper roots. This is a national crisis, because this kind of mass violence has been going on for a long time, and no one is really talking about it”.
In his films, Kanwar tries to show that everyone had their own ways of explaining, remembering and archiving. He films some people who didn’t talk about the sexual act itself but instead kept on referring to a window through which they had seen atrocities; others spoke about an orange tree in Wokha, Nagaland, which “witnessed everything the Army had done over a number of days that seemed like years”. Some women took the opposite approach and directly addressed the violence they had endured. In Manipur, he filmed a group of women who famously protested naked outside the Assam Rifles unit in Manipur after the rape and murder of Thangjam Manorama. In another incident in the Northeast, a victim’s mother wove a shawl in her memory, using different colours and designs to symbolise her abduction.
Kanwar, 51, does not have a clear reason behind creating this exhibition, except that the subject of sexual violence touches him deeply. Perhaps, he says, it began with the Gujarat riots in 2002, when he read about sexual attacks taking place in public view with the vocal support of the crowd. He travelled through India, talking to both victims and perpetrators, to try and comprehend how such crimes could occur so blatantly. To help viewers understand the context, Kanwar has displayed twenty reports of sexual violence. These include summaries, newspaper clippings, academic articles and legal reports that visitors can flip through for information.
Kanwar’s previous work includes the much acclaimed The Sovereign Forest exhibition, which looked at the tribal movements and their struggle against the government and corporations acquiring their land in Odisha. But Kanwar mentions that he would most love to see The Lightening Testimonies coupled with The Torn First Pages, another video installation that he created in 2004, about the oppression of the Burmese military junta.
The Lightening Testimonies is being exhibited at the Goethe-Institut, Mumbai, till March 6