Photographer Sheba Chhachhi on why women need their own day of solidarity

Chhachhi’s works ‘traverse early and recent feminist pathways, and engage with different durations’.

Sheba Chhachhi is an avowed feminist, a renowned photographer and an installation artist. Over the past 37 years, she has trained her camera on anti-dowry protests, worked with the publisher Urvashi Butalia to stage her portrait (shown at the Tate Modern in the UK), developed a series which looks at ecological violence from a feminist point of view and, most recently, showed a large-scale kinetic sculpture called Temporal Twist on the 70 years since Partition.

“People tend to think that feminism is only about women, whereas I think it’s a political philosophy which looks at relations of power in multiple contexts,” Chhachhi said in a phone interview from Bengaluru.

On February 22, a few weeks before International Women’s Day on March 8, Chhachhi launched the book ARC SILT DIVE – The works of Sheba Chhachhi, in Bengaluru. Edited by feminist theoretician and activist Kumkum Sangari, Arc Silt Dive contains photographs of installations and video works by Chhachhi, as well as essays which examine various ways to read her works – including her series on female ascetics, who are divested of their sexuality and yet not considered on a par with male monks.

70 Synonyms for Water in Sanskrit. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
70 Synonyms for Water in Sanskrit. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi

Many of Chhachhi’s images from the women’s movement in the 1980s and 1990s have become iconic. For example, her photographs of Satyarani Chadha and Shahjehan Apa, whose daughters were murdered for dowry and both of whom became active in the contemporary women’s movement from the late 1970s. These images are included in the book as part of a 2012 installation, Record/Resist, in which Chhacchi reflects on her archive of images of women’s protests as well as staged portraits of activists.

Record/Resist comprises 21 black-and-white digital photographs and a video. “The video is of me going back into the archive, remembering incidents, remembering contradictions, remembering experiences across the period of the movement and my engagement as both activist and photographer,” said Chhachhi. The idea behind the installation, she added, was to contextualise the archive and simultaneously create a bridge for younger feminists, many of whom were politicised by the December 16, 2012 gang rape and murder, to learn about the older women’s movement.

“I completed Record/Resist around September 2012, for the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea,” said Chhachhi. “In it, the video refers to the loss of public space. Whereas earlier, activists would occupy India Gate, Boat Club and even surround Parliament, now we were corralled into Jantar Mantar – which is now the only place you are allowed to protest. There is a sequence where ghosts of past demonstrations move across India Gate. It was uncanny – I finished the work in September and in December, India Gate was once again a site of protest. Young people turned up in large numbers and occupied India Gate, reclaiming it as public space.”

Shahjehan Apa. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Shahjehan Apa. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi

In Arc Silt Dive, the artworks are not arranged chronologically. For example, Chhachhi’s earliest installation pieces – Wild Mother I: The Wound is The Eye (1993), and Wild Mother II: The Mirror is The Witness (1994) – appear after Record/Resist in the book. Yet, it is possible to track Chhachhi’s artistic journey through the book – from documentary photography in the 1980s to staged portraits in the 1990s, and then a growing body of installation work at the turn of the century. Through all these experiments with ideas, forms, materials and their manifestations, feminism remains at the core of Chhachhi’s work.

“Chhachhi’s works traverse early and recent feminist pathways, engage with different durations, and mistrust capitalist narratives of human self-possession,” writes Sangari in Arc Silt Dive. “They take on crises of subsistence and urban survival in widening arcs of body and environs, human and non-human, expanding the horizon of feminist concern through a remarkable and complex range of locutions.”

Some of the most poignant images and text, in the book are from Chhachhi’s eco-feminism works. In one, women resembling those in Mughal miniature paintings are shown bathing in a river, except like the rivers of today, the water is choked with debris and filth.

Jamuna. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Jamuna. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi

In an image from The Jamuna Series, Chhachhi superimposes images of taps on to an aerial image of the dried up river – the message is clear: we are draining the river indiscriminately for human use. Funnily, the dried-up riverbed resembles a marbled bathroom wall with an obscene number of taps (there are six of them in the tiny space) fitted onto it. In another animated light-box from the Jamuna series, a woman sits on the banks of the river, except the land where the river ran has been appropriated for construction, a landfill can be seen in the distance and scavengers fly ominously towards the woman.

After the book, Chhachhi is collaborating with the disability rights activist Janet Price to develop a multi-media installation on “understanding the vocabularies of pain, exploring ideas of the body, medical traditions, disability and sexuality”. The continuation with feminist concerns here, too, is obvious.

Who is she making this art for? What does she think of the many grades of feminism, especially those who distance themselves from feminist ideology today?

Jamuna. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Jamuna. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi

“Some women have the luxury of taking that position today because feminism fought all these battles for them,” Chhachhi said. “But the battle against patriarchy continues. There is briefly the illusion that equality is real and then you only have to step out at night and get sexually harassed to be reminded. I think it is also what they call ‘consumer feminism’, where the fantasy of the liberated woman is used as a marketing tool and a lot of young women are growing up with these images. The ‘freedom’ offered is very much linked to sexuality and consumption, and the buying of consumer goods, which does not in itself change social conditions.”

True enough, a number of promotions around Women’s Day also focus on shopping deals and the colour pink. While these can sometimes distract from the real meaning of feminism, there is a pithy reason to hold on to and celebrate International Women’s Day, according to Chhachhi.

“International Women’s Day has its own symbolic history in India, and internationally,” she said. “It links us in solidarity with women all over the country and the world who are struggling to change society for the better. If we remember its original meaning, which was to celebrate the action and resistance of working women, we may not get overly influenced by the commercialisation which tries to cash in on a political history of resistance.”

Locust. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Locust. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Records Resist. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
Records Resist. Credit: Sheba Chhachhi
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