That which is vulnerable is all that will survive – beyond time, beyond space. Time will cease, memory will be the only testament to all that has been. In a Cannibal Time: Photographs by Naveen Kishore is a rare experience of bearing witness to moments that ripped across societal fabric and what remains of those moments today.

Rare for the form it renders to fragility – fragility of the moment, fragility of person, fragility of relationships – relationships with the self, one another, with your subject, with the “Other”. Relationships are eternal spaces of negotiations – negotiations between seeing and to be shown; inventing and being invented, speaking and being heard.

In this then, where does the photographer place himself, how much of himself does he bring in relation to his subject, how does he define the subject, could there be a definition at all. And most of all, where do these lines blur?

The show brings together photographs from four significant bodies of Kishore’s work: Performing the Goddess, The Green Room of the Goddess, The Epic and the Elusive and In a Cannibal Time. These works are being shown in Kolkata for the first time after over two decades of them being shot.

They are each markedly distinctive worlds and yet inherently continuous, almost as if in dialogue with one another: between the clay of the potters’ of Kuartuli by the ghats of the Ganges sculpting the figures in captivity and suffering in In a Cannibal Time and that same clay being used to sculpt the goddess kali year after year in The Greenroom of the Goddess.

What has been remarkably striking as a viewer is the ease with which the works flow with no attempt on the part of the photographer at imposing the language, tone or direction of this dialogue.

The arc of the show is immense: from documenting theatre in Manipur through an intensely turbulent period in The Epic and the Elusive to a personal response of the political climate post 9/11 shot at Seagull Books itself with In a Cannibal Time to the making of the goddess Kali at Kumartuli in The Green Room of the Goddess and documenting Chapal Bhaduri as he transitions into Chapal Rani night after night as part of his jatra performances in Performing the Goddess.

I have been only too fortunate to have had several conversations with Kishore as I was responding to this show in my head over these past couple of months. Some words that kept reappearing in our conversations were: intuitive spaces; motion or movement; transition; the blurs. He tells me how this was all being shot in analogue and the consequent removal of the immediacy between shooting and seeing the photographs as they were to finally appear.

One can’t help but wonder how this waiting would have influenced the narrative of the photographer’s interaction with his subject. Yet, with Kishore, it is always in those spontaneous moments when imagination assumes form and these photographs are born – in the unawareness of the moment that these intuitive conversations are realised between him and his subject, and the photographs are an embodiment of those very conversations.

In a Cannibal Time is reflective of a kind of restless urgency in the moment as the world around was collapsing into terrorised silence. When those corpse-like clay figures were brought back into Seagull Books, still wrapped in polythene, Kishore went into photographing them in a state of undoing – tearing though the polythene haphazardly and shooting them in the dark – as his intense need to respond.

How do the very real people, some more anonymous than others, in the three other bodies of work interact with the clay figurines of captivity devoid of all human presence – in fact, closer to a corpse-like existence – in In a Cannibal Time?

I think of it as a continuous dialogue: beginning with active resistance as embodied in that of Manipuri theatre with frames staging Antigone, moving into a personal reckoning with gender that has been central to the discourse of people’s movements historically concluding with the most common end that befalls moments of resistance across time and space – where its peaks in reimagining society is followed urgently and almost obsessively with its often brutal suppression for having articulated that new imagination leaving death and destruction as the only vestiges of that time. History has been witness to this – time and time again.

Kishore maintains that his photographs are not documentation; it is instead representations of time and art as he sees it. Asking him how they are all that different, he explains that it is not documentation in the sense in which the word is popularly understood today for his work is created in the unawareness of the moment and yet with complete consciousness of time and space for both him and his subject.

As I move from the corpse-like clay figurines towards the Kalis in the hands of the potters at Kumartuli further to Chapal Bhaduri’s transitioning into Chapal Rani concluding with theatre amid the violence and turmoil of Manipur with children being ripped out of wombs and citizens in chains – his use of light, shadow and smoke are characteristic in every frame, with an ever present reference to his life in theatre.

In bearing witness to these moments of rupture—rupture in the larger political fabric as also the deeply intimate experiences of the personal where the line between genders collapses in the becoming and unbecoming of Chapal Rani – Kishore’s works articulate these fractures.

These fractures which are all too quick to pass for breakings of person, moment, society are all too difficult to capture as the old disappears and the new emerges with an overwhelming sense of urgency while that in-between collapses into oblivion. For Kishore, however, it is these in-between moments of breaking – becoming and unbecoming – that is central to his oeuvre as a photographer where he is witness to what was, what is to come and what will be but through moments of intense vulnerability amid those fractures.

Between The Greenroom of the Goddess and Performing the Goddess, the transition from man to woman to goddess – both literal and metaphorical – traverses immense distances in evoking the most intimate personal vulnerabilities. If the vulnerable could find visual vocabulary, it would possibly in here – these frames where Chapal Bhaduri dresses before the mirror for his jatra performance of the goddess Sitala as he transitions into Chapal Rani night after night, refuse to leave me. How much of the self is performative, almost obsessively so, and yet constantly on the verge of breaking – the performativity of gender for it is an almost relentless rut, offering no escape without succumbing into yet another label.

With every breaking, so much of the self is lost – the self that is sacrosanct to being – and yet so much of the self is coerced into reconfiguration in response to changed realities. The self struggles between disappearance and reconfiguration and in those moments of intense struggles, there is survival. Survival to which this show is witness. Maybe it is then apt to conclude by quoting Kishore here: “…when clay ‘becomes’ goddess to be worshipped across thousands of pujas across the city. Four days later, she will return to a grand drowning. And become clay again.”

Rajosmita Roy is a PhD scholar of History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, funded by the SOAS Research Studentship.

In a Cannibal Time: Photographs by Naveen Kishore is on display at Emami Art in Kolkata till June 25.