1984: Gauri Gill
In 2005, when I heard Nirpreet Kaur relate her story, she had to have a psychologist present in the room. For us, it was too much to fully absorb. I did not know what to do with the weight of her words. We urged her to write a book, I hope she does someday.
There is a kind of silence around 1984, which may follow from an impossibility of comprehension of the violence, and the terrors of reliving it. Perhaps the stone-deaf silence that has been the State’s response to witness accounts makes the futility of summoning a voice stark. At the time, there were no 24-hour television channels, internet or social media; what we have are only invaluable eyewitness accounts, notes and photographs. Photographers who documented the massacre that November were terrified that their photographs would be made to disappear from photo-labs by the all-powerful Central Government. Images did disappear. Those that survived may now be used as evidence, or to relive the emotion. At a street exhibition of photographs organised in 2012 by the activist lawyer HS Phoolka, many of the visitors wept even as they used their cell phone cameras to re-photograph the images on display.
In 2005, after the release of the Justice Nanavati Commission Report on November 1984, and later in 2009, to mark the 25th anniversary of the pogrom, I visited Delhi’s resettlement colonies, and took photographs in Trilokpuri, Tilak Vihar and Garhi, as well as at protest rallies in the city. These photographs appeared in the print media then.
The photographs in themselves are now a kind of artifact, since they were mediated by the main- stream media, and had a certain valence in that context. I wondered how they might be viewed removed from that context. To trigger a conversation about 1984, in early 2013 I asked some artist friends, who had lived in Delhi in November of 1984, or have since or prior, or who see themselves as somehow part of this city, to write a comment alongside each photograph. It could be a direct response to the image, or a more general observation related to the event; it could be abstract, poetic, personal, fictional, factual or nonsensically true in the way that were Toba Tek Singh’s seminal words on the partition.
In September 2014, I returned to Tilak Vihar. I met with Darshan Kaur and other widow witnesses; saw children from ‘impacted’ families play and recite at the Guru Harkishan Public school; and went into the Shaheedi (Matyr) Memorial Museum – where the only visitors were the family members of those in the photographs.
‘Jis tann lãgé soee jãné’, a Punjabi saying goes. Only she whose body is hurt, knows. But perhaps it is also for those of us who were not direct victims, to try and articulate the history of our city – and universe. A world without individual stories, accounts, interpretations, opinions, secrets and photographs is indeed 1984 in the Orwellian sense.
The photographs from 2005 first appeared in Tehelka (with Hartosh Bal); and from 2009 in Outlook (with Shreevatsa Nevatia). The corresponding captions are roughly as they were inscribed in the published reports.
Text responses are by Jeebesh Bagchi, Meenal Baghel, Sarnath Bannerjee, Hartosh Bal, Amarjit Chandan, Arpana Caur, Rana Dasgupta, Manmeet Devgun, Anita Dube, Mahmood Farouqui, Iram Ghufran, Ruchir Joshi, Rashmi Kaleka, Ranbir Kaleka, Sonia Khurana, Saleem Kidwai, Pradip Kishen, Subasri Krishnan, Lawrence Liang, Zarina Muhammed,Veer Munshi,Vivek Narayanan, Monica Narula, Ajmer Rode, Anusha Rizvi, Nilanjana Roy, Inder Salim, Priya Sen, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Gurvinder Singh, Jaspreet Singh, Madan Gopal Singh, Paromita Vohra.
Gauri Gill is a Delhi-based photographer. She studied at the Delhi College of Art in New Delhi, the Parsons School of Design in New York, and at Stanford University in California. Her work is in the collections of prominent North American and Indian institutions, and in 2011 she was awarded the Grange Prize, Canada’s foremost award for photography.