Shahidul Alam has long been gripped by the life of a woman he has never met.
It?s been two decades since Kalpana Chakma was abducted, but Shahidul refuses to forget her. Standing at the threshold of his latest exhibition,Kalpana?s Warriors, the Bangladeshi photographer pauses for a moment.
In the room beyond is the third in a series of photo exhibitions that began with Searching for Kalpana Chakma in 2013, and was followed by 18 in 2014. The woman around whom these pictures revolve is notably absent from them. She was abducted at gunpoint in the early hours of 12 June 1996 from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh. Her captors were a group of plain-clothed men who were recognised as being from a nearby army camp. Kalpana never returned home and her fate remains unknown.
When the exhibition first opened at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, many of those who had been photographed could not risk coming out of hiding, yet the room was full of people who knew Kalpana?s story intimately. Some simply stood for a while before the portraits, others wept. Continue reading “Kalpana's Warriors in Delhi”
Kalpana Chakma, a young leader of the Bangladeshi Hill Women?s Federation, was abducted from her home by military personnel and civilian law enforcers at gunpoint on 12 June 1996. She remains missing. Through this work, part of Drik?s ?No More? campaign, photographer?Shahidul Alam?has tried to break a silence that successive governments, whether civilian or military backed, have carefully nurtured. The exhibition uses laser etching on straw mats, an innovative technique developed specifically for this exhibition. The process involved in creating these images is rooted to the everyday realities of the hill people, the paharis. Interviewees had repeatedly talked of the bareness of Kalpana?s home. That there was no furniture. That Kalpana slept on the floor on a straw mat. The straw mats were burned by a laser beam much as the fire that had engulfed the pahari villages.
Shilpakala Award recipientShahidul Alam, set up Drik and Majority World agencies, Pathshala South Asian Media Institute and Chobi Mela festival. Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photography Society and visiting professor at Sunderland University. Alam has chaired the World Press Photo jury. Alam also introduced email to Bangladesh. His book my journey as a witness has been described as ?the most important book ever written by a photographer? by legendary picture editor of?Life Magazine, John Morris. He is an internationally acclaimed public speaker and has presented at Hollywood, National Geographic, re:publica, COP21 and POP Tech.
Reviews: What’s Hot Buzz in Town Artslant Blouinartinfo Events High The Statesman
Absolutely stunning: Jess Worth. New Internationalist Magazine (Oxford)
We had a fabulous opening with moving recitation of Kabita Chakma’s poem “I will defy” by Aungmakhai Chak, Marium Rupa and Rahnuma Ahmed. Many of the warriors were present in person. We were sad to miss Saydia Gulrukh, but her presence was felt.
I will resist, I shall defy Will you do as you please? You turned my home into sand It was a forest where I stand You made daylight go dark Left it barren never a spark I will resist. I shall defy You strip me of my land On my women, your hand No longer shall I see No longer will I be Abandon, neglect, rage A throbbing womb, my stage I curl, I tear asunder Awake, I search, I wander I am who I am And I will resist I shall defy
Poem by Kabita Chakma
Translation by Shahidul Alam
Thanks to Arshad Jamal and Chris Riley for their support and Mohammad Mohsin Miah for helping with the printing. ASM Rezaur Rahman curated the show and the entire teams from Drik’s Publication, Gallery, Photography and Audio Visual Department as well as the volunteers from Pathshala did a wonderful job. We shall resist and we will continue to defy.
Absolutely stunning: Jess Worth. New Internationalist Magazine (Oxford)
They told me you were quiet. But I felt the rage in your silence. That when you spoke, they rose above themselves. But I felt their fear. That they held you amidst them. But I felt their loneliness. They pointed to the Koroi tree where you would all meet. The banyan tree under which you spoke. Ever so powerfully. They pointed to the mud floor, where you slept. I touched the mat that you had rested upon, and I knew I had found the vessel that must hold your image.
They had tried to erase you, your people, your memory. They had torched your homes and when coercion failed, when you remained defiant, they took you away, in the dead of night.
The leaves burned as the soldiers stood and watched. The same leaves they weave to make your mat. The same leaves I shall burn, to etch your image. Will the burning mat hold your pain? Will the charred leaves hold your anger? Will the image rising from the crisp ashen leaves reignite us? Will you return Kalpana?
For nineteen years I have waited, my unseen sister. For nineteen years they have waited, your warriors. Pahari, Bangali, men, women, young old. Was it what you said? What you stood for? Was it because you could see beyond the land, and language, the shape of one?s eyes and see what it meant to be a citizen of a free nation? For pahari, bangali, bihari, man, woman, hijra, rich, poor, destitute, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, Animist.
You had reminded us that a nation that fought oppression, could not rule by oppressing. That a people that fought for a language, could not triumph by suppressing another?s. That the martyrs who died, so we might be free, did not shed their blood, so we could become tyrants. That we who overcame the bullets and bayonets of soldiers, must never again be ruled through the barrel of a gun.
That Kalpana is what binds us. That is why Kalpana, you are not a pahari, or a woman or a chakma or a buddhist, but each one of us. For there can be no freedom that is built on the pain of the other. No friendship that relies on fear. No peace at the muzzle of a gun.
These Kalpana are your warriors. They have engaged in different ways, at different levels, sometimes with different beliefs. Some have stayed with you from the beginning. Others have drifted. They have not always shared political beliefs. But for you Kalpana, my unseen sister, they fight as one.
The process involved in creating these images are rooted to the everyday realities of the hill people, the paharis. Repeatedly, the interviewees talked of the bareness of Kalpana?s home. That there was no furniture, that Kalpana slept on the floor on a straw mat.
Rather than print on conventional photographic media, we decided we would use material that was part of pahari daily lives. The straw mat became our canvas. The fire that had been used to raze pahari homes, also needed to be represented, so a laser beam was used to burn the straw, etching with flames, the images of rebellion.
It was the politics of this interaction that determined the physicality of the process. The laser beam consisted of a binary pulse. A binary present on our politics. In order to render the image, the image had to be converted in various ways. From RGB to Greyscale to Bitmap, from 16 bit to 8 bit to 1 bit. To keep detail in the skin tone despite the high contrast, the red channel needed to be enhanced. The Resolution and intensity and duration of the laser beam needed to be brought down to levels that resulted in the straw being selectively charred but not burnt to cinders.
A screen ruling that separated charred pixels while maintaining gradation had to be carefully selected. And then, working backwards, a lighting mechanism needed to be found that broke up the image into a discrete grid of light and dark tones, providing the contrast, the segmentation and the gradation, necessary to simulate the entire range of tones one expects in a fine print. This combination of lighting, digital rendering, printing technique and choice of medium, has led to the unique one off prints you see in this exhibition. A tribute to a unique woman that had walked among us.
?I think it is natural to expect the caged bird to be angry at those who imprisoned her. But if she understands that she has been imprisoned and that the cage is not her rightful place, then she has every right to claim the freedom of the skies!” Kalpana Chakma
Eighteen. The legal age to vote.?The age of sexual consent. The threshold of adulthood when one ceases to be a child. Eighteen. The sections of the?Mahabharata. Eighteen armies fighting over eighteen days. Eighteen, the number of years we have waited for justice. Eighteen years that you have been gone Kalpana, my sister. Continue reading “Eighteen”
Part of the “No More” public awareness campaign of Drik.
Let me ask a silly question, my partner Rahnuma had said. ?But isn?t it all in your imagination?? Of course it was. The images I?d created, while based upon complex scientific procedures, did not ?prove? anything. The objects I had photographed, while silent witnesses, had not ?seen? the crime. The artifacts, interviews, videos and photographs I was presenting was not ?evidence?.
Interview on 22nd February 2013, where he talks about the Shahbagh movement, his recent exhibition at Oitijjo in the South Bank in London and his upcoming exhibition on the disappearance of Kalpana Chakma.
?Do the words of all witnesses count equally?? asks Kalpana Chakma?s brother Kalicharan Chakma. He brings out his diary as he talks to me and says, ?I have learned from the tragic mistake that I need to keep a record of every encounter that we have with the military, the BDR. Our words do not count.?
I was talking to him after a public gathering at Baghaichari, Rangamati, organised by the Hill Women?s Federation, on the thirteenth anniversary of her abduction, June 12, 2009.
Kalicharan Chakma flipped through his notebook and told me of the countless number of times either he had to visit the zone commander, or the latter paid him a visit at his house. He read out, June 27, 2000, Marisya Zone commander came to our house. And then, these dates, July 26, 2000. August 2, 2005. July 3, 2006. July 26, 2006. Baghaichari Thana, Ughalchari Camp, and then Baghaichari Thana.
It was a routine that continued at uneven intervals. BDR members too would stop him in the bazaar (market). Harassment was at its worst in 2008, he said, after newspaper articles on Kalpana Chakma had been published. New Age, June 12, 2008. Star Magazine, June 20, 2008. After the public meeting in Dhaka. His family had to spend many sleepless nights.
July 3, 2008. July 8, 2008. July 11, 2008. August 11, 2008. August 15, 2008, he read out more dates. Major Iqbal and Subedar Shahjahan along with some BDR jawans came to our house. They were looking for Kalicharan Chakma, they said. We have information, Kalpana is in India. We?ll give you money to bring her home. Kalpana?s brother Ajeet Chakma was reluctant to accept the Tk 3,000 but he was afraid to refuse. With pain and anger in his eyes, he asks, ?What kind of harassment is this? It has been more than a decade, we don?t know what happened to our sister. We are the victims of a crime, we were standing in the water with her when they fired on us. I saw Lt Ferdous with my own eyes, I saw VDP members Saleh Ahmed and Nurul Huq. I see them walking around everyday in Bangali Para. Nobody ever interrogates them.? Voice choked in anger, he paused, then went on, ?At Baghaichari thana on August 15, 2008, the police officer accused me of defaming the Bangladesh military. They accused me of hiding Kalpana in India. I asked him, if you know so well that she is in India, why don?t you arrange for her return? But they got angry when I asked these questions, we are not supposed to raise our voices, we are merely Chakma, we are merely tribal people.?
Kalpana Chakma?s sister-in-law told me it?s not only BDR and police surveillance (nojordari). There are other things, too. After the BDR mutiny (February 25-26, 2009), rumours flew that Lt. Ferdous, the government had spun tales that she had eloped with him, now, rumour had it, that he was killed in the mutiny, Kalpana is now widowed with two children. Her sister-in-law asks me, who on earth spreads such rumours? What do they gain? I also listened to the tremendous social pressure that her family has been facing for the last two years, to perform the last rituals for Kalpana. Her brother says, they think that if they can get me to perform dharma for Kalpana, the government can use that as a reason to close the case.
Others, Kalpana?s neighbours, who had accompanied Kalicharan Chakma to the army camp, and to Baghaichari Thana, requested me to leave out their names, they had witnessed the argument that had taken place between Lt Ferdous and Kalpana in 1996, but they were afraid. After all, they have seen at close quarters what life has been like for Kalpana?s family for the last 14 years. Constant state surveillance.
In Road To Democracy, a private TV channel?s popular talk show (August 18, 2009), Dr Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, an Awami League presidium member, who also had played a central role in negotiating and signing the Peace Treaty, let the cat out of the bag. While discussing the ethnic conflict in the CHT, he publicly acknowledged that Kalpana Chakma had been abducted by a lieutenant of the Bangladesh Army.
The government can no longer look the other way. We demand that the whole truth be made public. And that the harassment and surveillance of Kalpana?s family members should cease.
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student in anthropology at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), USA. Published in New Age