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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

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For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.