Moving pictures

A visit to a museum curated by a community of activists and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

January 03, 2015 03:41 pm | Updated 03:41 pm IST

The Black Room at the Remember Bhopal museum, tells the story of that dark night through photos. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Black Room at the Remember Bhopal museum, tells the story of that dark night through photos. Photo: Special Arrangement

Where the Union Carbide factory stood three decades ago — about 2.5 km away on the same Berasia Road now — is a museum; a people’s museum, to be precise. The ‘Remember Bhopal’ museum is symbolically located inside the house of a survivor of the horrific night of December 2-3 in 1984. The double-storeyed building gets a constant stream of visitors, ever since the museum was inaugurated on December 2.

This is our story, many visitors say, as they are brought to tears on seeing the belongings and pictures of the Bhopal gas victims and hearing the voices of survivors who narrate the trail of destruction left by the industrial disaster. The visitors are not necessarily survivors or those from affected families. Many are from other parts of the country and the world. “ Sab kehte hai yeh, dil ko choo lenewali dastaan hai (everybody says this saga touches the heart)”, says Sasreen Khan, a 20-year-old survivor, who runs the museum on behalf of Remember Bhopal Trust.

“It is the oral history,” asserts Rama Lakshmi, a journalist trained in Museology in the U.S. and the curator, “that enables each visitor to go through the experience. It works as a powerful intervention tool.” This is a first-of-its-kind in India where the museum tells the story and the people’s voice is the sutradhar . Normally in India museums are community buildings or elite institutions that house artefacts, celebrate objects from the past and are supported by the Government. But the Bhopal Museum is like a live museum founded on people’s stories and survivors’ memories. It whips up emotions because it is also on a contentious and contemporary issue, still alive in public memoryAfter working with the history museum in St. Louis, Rama Lakshmi dreamt of storytelling museums in India. “During my research there,” she says, “I learnt how museums can curate, display and tell the stories of injustice, social protests, war and difficult incidents by portraying memories, voices and objects.”

During the 25th anniversary of Bhopal gas tragedy, she came up with the idea of archiving the social struggle of the gas survivors of Bhopal. Her original plan of a small touring exhibition in a bus across the country had to be shelved due to lack of funds. But she met Shalini Sharma who had a PhD in Interface of media, memory and social movements. They teamed up on the idea of a people’s museum, as they had been interacting with Bhopal survivors and activists for years and realised that majority were opposed to the State Government’s proposal to build a museum. The survivors, says Shalini, questioned the government’s moral right to build a memorial at the site because they feel the government is complicit in the injustice meted out over the years. Instead, they were willing to create their own memorial museum, filled with their own voices and protest songs, campaign posters, photographs, artefacts, personal objects and other relevant belongings that are their last tangible link to those who died.

Inside museums, one usually has artefacts encased and a small story woven around it and captioned to the exhibit. But for setting up the Bhopal museum, points out Rama, we first heard the harrowing tales of survival and struggle, recorded the oral histories and shaped the museum’s narrative by all the things they provided.

At the entrance is the heart-wrenching sight of a frock worn by three-year-old Sajid who died that night. When the visitor picks up a phone receiver, the voice of Bismillah Bi, Sajid’s mother, recount the horror of that cold. Bismillah Bi chokes as she remembers running away from her house holding Sajid. A stopped pocket-watch, cricket bat and crutches, a mangalsutra , the stethoscope used by a doctor that night, the aari used by the forensic expert — each item donated by the families of victims and survivors tells a vivid story. When visitors hear the sobbing voices of the survivors narrating the gruesome moments that changed their lives and history, there is a transformation. People come out crying and even lead infuriated discussions on the delayed justice. The objective, says Rama Lakshmi, is to protect and keep alive the voice of the people in the struggle.

The museum is divided into three sections. The first room is the Black Room, which tells the story of that dark night through photos. While the three walls have chilling photos of the night’s dance of death, the ceiling has a collage of faces of all those who died. The other two rooms depict how the people dealt with the tragedy. The museum provides a template for any other proposed memorial projects for any other social or environmental struggle, adds Rama Lakshmi.

When you work with the community, it brings in lot of sensibility, she says, and memory can be showcased in museum-worthy style. The concept took four years of brain storming and fine tuning to come out with the compelling displays and well designed galleries as envisioned by the creators.

Till recently, a street sculpture and graffiti across the abandoned factory walls of Union Carbide served as a public memory. But the survivors were thinking in advance and collecting objects because, after the 1989 settlement, they feared they would be betrayed in memory too, says Sharma.

By commemorating their ongoing struggle, the museum gives a glimpse into the past and allows the viewer to contemplate how such experiences and struggles can influence our lives today. It also underlines the need for and the importance of more such empathetic museums to conserve, record and archive social movements for history.

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