My strongest memory of Vijay Jodha is of him in tears after a film fellowship jury tore apart the first rough cut of a film of his. It was a documentary about how the effects of climate change could be seen in Himachal Pradesh as apple plantations shifted higher up the mountains every few years. But Jodha had picked a tough topic that hadn’t yet been studied in detail and would need years of evidence to prove. He was also in the early stages of his career and couldn’t figure out how to showcase an entire apple production cycle within his three-month production deadline, but he pulled himself together after the critique and completed the film. Fourteen years later, the forest department in Himachal Pradesh still screens it as part of its officers’ training programme, and it has won accolades nationally and internationally.
Jodha is a photographer, filmmaker and artist based in Gurgaon. He has produced five books and his projects have received over 70 honours in 24 countries, including 17 best film/ director awards. His films have been broadcast in over 200 countries on 75 channels including BBC, CNN and Discovery. Two of his books and three of his films have been selected for archiving in the U.S. Library of Congress. One of his projects, Pedaling to Freedom , was also selected for archiving at OSA Budapest — the world’s premier repository of materials dealing with human rights — in 2007. Parallel to paid work, Jodha has produced over 30 films on a pro bono basis. His last project, The First Witnesses , focused on India’s ongoing agrarian crisis, in which three lakh debt-stressed farmers have committed suicide since 1995. It was exhibited across India, including in the Chennai Photo Biennale in 2019.
Jodha tends to pick difficult topics that everyone else sees but wants to look away from because they’re too hard to process. ‘Most of My Heroes’, the exhibition he’s currently holding in different locations across India, is no different. It’s a show about the victims of the anti-Sikh violence in 1984 that saw thousands killed across India and especially Delhi.
The title is taken from American hip hop artist Public Enemy’s song ‘Fight the Power’, whose lyrics include the words ‘most of my heroes still don’t appear on no stamp’. The exhibition itself is in the form of giant postage stamps that feature the faces of Sikhs killed in various parts of Delhi in November 1984, after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her bodyguards.
The images, which include old men and women, and even a baby, are digital artworks based on photos of victims of the 1984 violence that are displayed in a modest one-room museum in Trilokpuri Gurudwara. This East Delhi resettlement colony earned the dubious distinction of witnessing the greatest anti-Sikh violence in 1984. Of the 2,700 victims overall, over 350 were killed in this single locality.
Jodha has placed each image individually on a black background from which the disembodied faces stare directly at the viewer. “Postage stamps are the preserve of the famous or the powerful, and not of the ordinary or the forgotten. This art exhibition subverts that idea. The men, women, children who were killed in broad daylight in Delhi exactly 35 years back have been reduced to mere statistics. Even going by the lower official figures, on an average one Sikh was brutally murdered in full public view every four minutes in the heart of India’s capital over three days of mob violence in November 1984,” Jodha says. “The endless recurrence of mob violence and the lack of justice are a reflection of the zero value attached to the innocent lives lost in every incident, which is why zero is the value given on each stamp”.
Jodha came upon the topic more than 20 years ago when he and his brother were doing a project on the idea of ageing in India. As he travelled across the country to research for a book on how the aged survive, the issue of mob violence and communal riots arose. “The average lifespan in India used to be 30 years,” he says. “Now it’s doubled. Elderly people need to be taken care of. If riots happen, younger generations are wiped out, so who will help the aged? This was the question that made me study the riots more carefully”.
He struggled for five years to get a space to exhibit the show, and finally got a chance in 2019 when well-known artist and friend Arpana Caur offered him the use of her own gallery. He then took the show to Constitution Club in New Delhi in December, where it was shown alongside a panel discussion on the 1984 riots by the Sikh Forum. “It was wonderful. The amount of traffic was incredible. People who came were deeply affected. Since the Sikh Forum gives scholarships to the children and grandchildren of the riot victims, there was a strong connection,” he says. He was also invited to present the exhibition at a cultural festival in Delhi on January 02, the day artist-activist Safdar Hashmi was killed by a violent mob.
The reactions to Jodha’s show are often painful. “Arpana Caur was happy that it had been done but couldn’t bear to see it. It’s tough to have these people’s faces looking at you even though they’re one step removed and it’s just a picture. The wounds are still raw,” admits Jodha. A college student, a Sikh, at the Forum had a similar reaction. He, like a number of visitors, walked past the show with his eyes averted. When I questioned him, he said he was 18 and didn’t know much about the 1984 riots and it was hard for him to even imagine those times.
The brushing under the carpet of inconvenient truths is what bothers Jodha the most, for as long as I’ve known him. “We Indians are emotional people and hence easy to manipulate. I’m no different. But I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to spend those emotions in a frivolous way. I will put them into something worthy. It isn’t enough just to be angry. Do something about what infuriates you and in a manner that is creative, not destructive. Something that encourages introspection and debate.”
The writer, the author of a fantasy series, specialises in art and culture of South East Asia.