We were fortunate to be able to view filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s installation at a group showing of contemporary art at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi last week. Named The Lightning Testimonies, the disturbing eight-channel video installation explores the often repressed, always sensitive and newly urgent subject of sexual violence against women in the Indian subcontinent.
The issue of sexual violence, to which women in this part of the world fall prey under many circumstances, has been a fiercely contested space in the past few years. The nationwide protests following the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012, the recommendations made by the Justice Verma committee, the debate on penalties and the concept of justice, and legal changes following the recommendations are all indicative of a tension in our political life.
Artists and filmmakers have had an array of responses to the situation, ranging from doing an episode on Satyameva Jayate to the recently released film Mardaani, which deals with the issue at the level of popular consciousness. One can always argue against the simplification of issues at this level, and this is where Kanwar’s work―with its crispness of assertion and recognition of the complexity of the location of women’s bodies in the nation state, society and family―is head and shoulders above other contemporary visual discussions on the theme.
In this presentation, sexual violence is looked at specifically in the context of conflict and social disharmony. The work is a complex montage of simultaneous accounts, with stories ranging from wide-scale abduction and rape during partition to the powerful anti-rape protests in Manipur in 2004.
Each projection features a different woman recounting a multilayered memory of trauma and resilience. Throughout, Kanwar explores the many ways in which narratives of sexual violence are enmeshed within the Indian social and political conflicts.
The endeavour was created, in part, to break through the zones of self-imposed and communally-enforced silence surrounding the issue in India, in both public and private realms. Importantly, Kanwar has chosen to present the work both as a multichannel installation in art-world settings and as a continuous film in educational and activist contexts. He is ably supported by the lyrical cinematography of Ranjan Palit.
The objectivity of Kanwar’s documentary approach is modified by his own presence in the films. Through voiceover and first-person commentary, Kanwar insists on his own place within the larger discourse, introducing an empathic and passionate presence into a discussion that is epic in scale and national in consequence.
The show is nearing the end of its display in Delhi. To break out of the elitism and isolation that often accompany art exhibitions, there has been a conscious attempt to reach out to students in schools and colleges and motivate them to view it.
A small guide has been developed for teachers and mentors to initiate a discussion on the installation and the issues it raises. The show has gathered wide acclaim in Delhi, as well as at select international destinations. It is time it travelled to other Indian cities and engaged with a Indian audience.