Vijay S. Jodha: Faces that look like me

In “Most of My Heroes”, Vijay S. Jodha documents the memories of mob violence

November 21, 2019 03:27 pm | Updated 03:27 pm IST

Lest we forget: Vijay S. Jodha at the exhibition in New Delhi

Lest we forget: Vijay S. Jodha at the exhibition in New Delhi

Around 20 years back artist-filmmaker Vijay S. Jodha was working on a collaborative project with his brother, photographer Samar Jodha, that focused on the world of India’s senior citizens. One of the facets that he was exploring was a communal riot. During his research, he had met up some of the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He realised in India where you don’t have much of a social security network or a chain of old people’s homes for the elderly, the younger generation was really your insurance policy for old age. Now, if it so happens that your younger generation is taken away in a riot or some mob violence, what happens to the parents?

The question stuck and two decades later Jodha is back with an exhibition, “Most of My Heroes”, where he has subverted the idea of postage stamps by putting faces of Sikhs who were killed in November 1984 on the roads of Delhi after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on zero-value stamps. “I had met up some of the victims of 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom – I would not call it a riot. My interaction with various people such as a lady called Pohchi Kaur in Trilokpuri whose all four sons and a son-in-law were murdered in 1984. Later her husband also passed away. So I had featured her story in my project exhibition and later a book. That was really the starting point I would say,” recollects Jodha.

He first wanted to put just pictures. “The stamp idea came to me a bit later,” remarks Jodha. “In itself, stamps are not a new concept. I recall seeing some stamp gags in Mad magazine while growing up and fans routinely create stamps with their favourite star as a tribute. But this politics of prominent public acknowledgment whether via road, airport or stadium naming or issuing of stamps, is very opaque and largely politically driven affair in India. So that is where I decided to take this project – people who represent the very opposite idea – ordinary, powerless, individually forgotten and representing a chapter of our history that has been largely brushed under the carpet,” explains Jodha.

Forget rest of India, he asks, how many in Delhi know that over those three days in 1984, on an average basis there was one Sikh murdered every four minutes in broad daylight. “I wanted the look to be exactly like the stamps issued with more prominent faces. Mine differ not only in the choice of personalities. The year for each reads as 1984 – the time each of one them was brutally snatched away from the face of this earth. And in denial of justice, the failure or shortcoming from nearly every section of India society shows that we attach little value to the lives of these or any other lost to mob violence. Hence all stamps denote ‘zero’ as a value instead of one rupee, five rupees, etc. as is the norm,” says Jodha.

The title has come from hip hop artist Chuck D’s song “Fight the power” in which he sings:

“I'm ready and hyped

plus I'm amped.

Most of my heroes

don't appear on no stamps.”

On how does he strike a balance between information and aesthetics in such projects, Jodha says, he didn’t have to think much on that front. ”My interest in this exhibition is to provide a starting point for people, not just for 1984 but also for all mob violence affecting one or other community in any given year or part of India. When one comes face to face with these giant – young men, old, men, women, children, and even an infant, maybe as a viewer you would introspect a little bit. What does it take for somebody to strike down a small boy or an elderly person? What makes us human beings so overcome with hatred that we can reduce ourselves to such a level? Or the indifference where we are able to rationalise this kind of savagery? That shrugging of shoulder saying, “such things happen,” or “yes, but what about…” or “this group had it coming” kind of nonsense. Do facts and figure dull our senses? So I am interested in triggering a kind of reflection that goes against such kneejerk reactions.”

It has been 35 years, but mob violence remains a reality. “Unfortunately, yes. What bothers me more is not just mob violence, but how its aftermath is managed by the larger Indian society and how nothing is done to prevent a recurrence,” says Jodha. As an artist, he says, one can only highlight such things. “As Milan Kundera said, ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’”

Memories of 1984

“I was a kid in school in distant Hyderabad that thankfully witnessed no violence against the Sikh community but there were at least three Sikh schoolmates who cut off their hair after the countrywide violence. One of them a classmate and a dear friend happened to visit my show exactly 35 years after he had got his hair shorn. It was only now that he shared how his father, who was stationed near Nagpur removed a number of burned bodies of Sikhs from arriving trains. 1984 was traumatic year for our country – this incident, Blue Star operation, Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, and Bhopal gas disaster that followed a couple of months later. Of course, as kids we could have other concerns. I recall some cricket buffs in my class who were listening to radio commentary and were dejected not so much that the Prime Minister had been killed but because India had to abandon a cricket match halfway in Pakistan just when we looked like winning an ODI there for the very first time.”

Collecting images

“Some of the Gurdwaras in Delhi have pictures of the victims of the carnage. I recall once I was at Trilokpuri Gurdwara and there was this newly married Sikh couple that had come from Punjab. The groom said to me, ‘I brought her here to show her picture of my uncle.’ And then he took me around to show me that photo and this uncle was only a child, about eight years old. It was all so sad and shocking but then there were many victims of such a tender age.”

(“Most of My Heroes” at Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, 4/6 Siri Fort Institutional Area, New Delhi, from November 25-28, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.)

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