Political security can mean enforced disappearance... Chitra Padmanabhan unveils images of loss in Srinagar.
Photographs pegged to certain days and occasions are usually tethered to the swell and ebb of the particular event being celebrated or observed. Thereafter, they are relegated to the recycle bin only to be replicated the following year on the appointed date.
Sometimes, photographs escape such summary sentences, provided the viewer is ready to give herself up to new ways of seeing. Then they break free of the ritualistic garb of events and enable you to grasp the deeper dimensions of a long-standing issue, the human bedrock as it were, for long buried under citadels of strategic speak.
That is exactly what happened to me recently. Some days ago, a friend emailed me a bunch of photographs she had taken of a public meeting in Srinagar on August 30, observed the world over as International Day of the Disappeared. It is a day on which civil liberties and human rights groups as well as affected families, addressing their governments, highlight the plight of individuals who have become targets of enforced disappearance, a political weapon increasingly used by countries as part of their opaque arsenal to preserve national security from all shades of ‘terror'. A weapon seemingly inured to Constitutional underpinnings and the fundamental rights of individuals to demand due process of law.
The photographs on my computer screen showed a crowd of men looking on at a meeting made up almost entirely of women. Gathered under the banner of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), steered by its matronly-looking, dauntless founder Parveena Ahangar, these women had come together to raise an issue that may have wreaked many an emotional storm in their hearts, but which they were mediating with a strong political intent. A vital presence in each of their lives had gone missing, been made to disappear – a partner, an offspring, a sibling. Their absence was the biggest presence in the women's lives, particularly on that designated day, when private grief had become a yardstick of public probity and governance.
Of course you could remark that the photographs did not have much significance months after the event and you would be right – but only up to a point. As the images unfolded, that very distance from the event made it possible for one to see deeper patterns.
These patterns told a story, however tremulous, of the attempt to create and communicate a life affirming aesthetic in public space, which has become synonymous with the rhetoric of power in the past two decades. What emerged was a tableau of loss, protest and an unflinching act of memory that can only be sustained by unconditional love.
Especially that first photograph: names, names and more names crowded a huge banner tightly stretched across a sharp tipped railing in the park. Each name a remembrance sheathed in grief of ‘disappeared' sons, brothers and husbands; names that mothers, wives and sisters have sought to keep alive in public space so they don't turn into dark shrouds in their lives.
The names were printed closely, there were so many of them – thousands according to the APDP. They were printed in neat rows, each row dedicated to missing men from a particular district – Srinagar, Budgam, Pulwama, Anantnag, Baramulla, Kupwara. Reading the names in just one row, one's eyes glazed over. A banner alongside carried their photographs: men young and old, bearded, mustachioed and clean shaven; working class and middle class; teachers, students, government servants, carpenters, carpet weavers, roadside vendors, daily wage labourers -- their individual traits collapsed into one grim identity, that of ‘ the disappeared.'
The interplay of the personal and the political, of individual grief and notions of public justice was palpable. In one photograph a yellow silken banner, unashamedly poignant, asked the world, ‘Where are our dear ones? Say a prayer, call out to him, weep, let tears flow….'
The next photograph showed a companion banner, which sought to frame the wrenching individual stories in the context of the body politic of the state. On a pristine white banner was printed, in all capital letters, a demand, a plea, an agonised reminder to the political masters and a cry for the right means: ‘India must ratify the international convention for the protection of all persons from enforced disappearances.
In this landscape of dispossession stood the women marshalled by Parveena Ahangar. On the one hand was their all too visible vulnerability; on the other hand, the aggressive stance of press cameras primed to shoot them at first sight, seemed yet another imposition. Ringing the women was a straggling crowd of bystanders, male, looking on at this overture in a space normally occupied by men as a matter of course. Beyond them all, were the attractions of a market street -- Gladsome Art, Singapore Fashions, Samsung and Nokia. And though the logo was hidden by the figure of a man in the photograph, the legend ‘ Life's Good' was brilliantly visible, as if saying it is business as usual. Amidst the business as usual shop signs, as well as the robust stance of bystanders, the fragile, albeit determined, presence of the women was captured so tellingly.
I was not looking at photographs shot by an ace camera woman preoccupied by the aesthetics of composition. If anything there was a tentative quality to the photographs, as if the eye behind the camera had been hesitant to intrude into the private grief of the women, enveloping them like a cloak. Upon being asked, the accidental photographer said she had taken the photographs intending to give them to APDP in case they had some use for it. But by effacing her presence, the photographer had achieved something far more important. She had enabled the viewer to look beyond the obvious.
For just as we speak of the body politic of a state, so did the bodies of these women betray their relationship with their political environs. The way they held themselves was a testament of their trauma as well as the relentless nature of unyielding acts of ‘governance', which often brutalises the very society whose aspirations it is supposed to articulate. Shoulders set rigidly as if to ward off a blow; bodies closed in like a barricade to keep the world out; a set of a figure whichcommunicated its unease at coming out in this manner, as well as its determination to do so.
Some faces wore their sorrow like armour, others like a lullaby they continue to hum under their breath, even if raggedly. Like barometers of pain, the faces displayed in so many ways the vulnerability, confusion and incomprehension of this terrible twist in their lives – the clouding over of a still youthful face; careworn lines that had conquered a thin frame; a tremulous set of mouth and telltale glitter in the eyes that even spectacles could not mask. Each face expressed an unplumbed feature of time experienced as an unending wait at the edge of an abyss. A wait that has become as much part of everyday life in Kashmir as the shoe shine boys in the park that day.
Among the faces was one which stood out for its resolute expression. It was the face of a woman who knows she has travelled a long way from home. Parveena Ahangar, the woman who has forged each story of unending wait into APDP's collective struggle, which includes her own unflagging campaign through courts to locate her son Javed, who was picked up by the army during a search and cordon operation in 1990 and became a victim of enforced disappearance. The photograph had not only caught Ahangar's gentle features of a life bygone; it reflected the fortitude she has acquired in a journey of having to steel herself, of erasing the spontaneity that accompanies a life free of dark shadows. How else do you confront iron in the soul of a Goliath-like state?
It may sound odd, but the fact that I came by these photographs much later than the event, seemed to have freed me to see the many layers underlying the issue of enforced disappearance. Had I seen the photographs on or closer to August 30, I probably would have internalised them as an illustration of a serious issue – the disappearance of thousands of men in Kashmir in the past two decades.
Viewing the photographs away from the event lifted the veil of a conditioned gaze from my eyes, and I saw the cost of the prevailing political process or lack of it, inscribed and branded on the faces and bodies of the women. Each look, each stance was a tangible artifact revealing the many calcifying layers of a conflicted and dehumanising present.
Each face told its own story, but all the stories had a common thread running through them -- one was looking at images of women who have mortgage their lives to virtually embody the missing, sentencing themselves to a life term of muted breath. Yet, by becoming a living memory of the missing, they keep alive a possibility of humanising politics and its practice in public space. That is why each day is the day of the disappeared for the women in the photographs.
Chitra Padmanabhan is a culture critic based in New Delhi.