Centralia by Poulomi Basu

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This article was originally published in issue #7863 of the British Journal of Photography.

Poulomi Basu’s Centralia is no easy read. The situation it unravels − a protracted fight for land and resources in Central India − is not only complex, but also largely unheard of, especially in mainstream Western media. And Basu, reflecting on contemporary documentary practices, refuses to simplify it into a readily digestible format. Instead, she wishes to reflect the bewildering atmosphere that reigns in the region. “The adage, ‘The first victim of any conflict is the truth’, is particularly apt here,” she says. “The conflict, with its many actors all occupying opaque roles, has created a space with its own internal logic and landscape.” Thus, she hopes to take the audience “on a journey to a place where truth and lies, reality and fiction have become blurred”.

Now, Basu is raising funds to publish the dummy with Dewi Lewis. Through the collision of pictures of foreboding landscapes, snaps of festivities, images of locals uncovering crime scenes, photographs of contemporary revolutionaries and of fallen comrades, and found material selected from different sources, she creates a visual labyrinth that leaves us feeling disoriented. In this way Centralia reminds us that nothing witnessed can be taken for what it is, particularly when, as Basu explains, we’re faced with a “fluid political situation where the allegiances and motives of the actors are constantly shifting”. Innocent villagers are killed and dressed up as guerrillas to be presented to the media as the proof of a successful military encounter. Revolutionary fighters who surrender are sent back into the forest along with the police to hunt for their former comrades.

More than anything, Basu was inspired by the literary work of William Faulkner, J G Ballard and Arundhati Roy, as well as the dream narratives of David Lynch. “All of these authors deal with the darkness that lies beyond,” she says. “For Ballard and Lynch, in particular, the safest, most benign places are the ones that hide the most darkness. We must penetrate this veneer to reveal hidden and normalised violence, and mechanisms of control that are hidden in plain sight. In Faulkner, I am inspired by a multitude of perspectives, a collision of information, which is arranged in the mind of the reader to arrive at some form of understanding. Nothing is presented to us in a linear fashion. As readers we must actively engage in the imagery for meaning to emerge. As for Roy, I admire her belligerence and her activism. I admire her anti-establishment stance. To write and talk about these things, to give buried voices a chance to be heard. And to do so with lyricism, with poetry, with fire.”

© Poulomi Basu
© Poulomi Basu

Basu takes cues from all four in composing Centralia, which is set largely in the state of Chhattisgarh, as well as the states of Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand, home to the forest-dwelling tribal population, as well as lucrative mineral deposits of iron ore, bauxite and coal. Over the years, vast swathes of people have been driven off their lands as industries take over. But the displaced are far from idle. They have responded by organising and fighting back.

“Here is a little-known conflict, a conflict containing grave socio- economic injustices and which, at times, has pushed India towards a civil war,” says Basu. “A conflict crucial to understanding my country and yet it is almost completely unknown or, at least, completely misunderstood”.

The Naxalite movement originated in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967. In 1970, 500km south in Calcutta, where Basu was born 13 years later and grew up, violent clashes raged between radical students who supported and joined the Naxalite movement and the machinery of the state. Composed of Maoist revolutionaries, the movement has deep ties with the situation in the central states she recently covered. “The areas directly surrounding my house were burning,” Basu reflects. “So, in a way, this project is a prism to explore contemporary India through my own connection to a historical and present series of events.”

In line with her previous projects To Conquer Her Land andA Ritual of Exile, Centralia hones in on women’s roles. “I focus on ordinary women who find themselves in extraordinary situations,” says the activist photographer. “The women of rural India are largely perceived to be voiceless and homebound. In a country where the role of a woman is confined mostly to the hearth, these female guerrillas are changing the face of the region and quietly challenging the prevailing orthodoxies of their societies. Whatever you might think of the wider conflict, this dynamic alone is extraordinary.”

“We must demand, or at least expect, a great deal from our audience. In not doing so we risk patronising them, or oversimplifying situations”

© Poulomi Basu

Basu shares the story of Nirmala, who mastered reading after being the first woman to join the guerrilla squad of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, and taught politics to the people. She was shot at close range on 13 August 1998. Or that of Kamindla Shobha, who, amongst other things, arranged for women to work making thin cigarettes, known as beedi, to counter their exploitation by the company owners. She was killed on 23 February 2005 by state forces, says Basu. She also features women fighters today, such as a 26-year-old, also called Nirmala, who saw her village burned. After the attack and the rape of three of her friends, she ran for her life and joined the Maoists. “I met her when she was listening to the radio with her male comrade,” Basu recalls. “As they heard news of Hosni Mubarak’s downfall in Egypt, she told me, ‘I am from a very poor family and life was very difficult. I joined the guerrillas and now I understand and see what is happening in the world, and I think revolution is the only option’.” Through these women, we start to get a glimpse of the many battles they are fighting against the encroaching economic powerhouses and their allies in the state’s apparatus, against the patriarchal society and the unjust caste and class system.

At a time of renewed identity crisis for the photojournalism industry where debates over what constitutes a truthful account of reality are plenty, Basu, who is no stranger to these discussions − she was accused of staging some of the scenes that appear in A Ritual of Exile − is providing both criticism and answer.

“We have somehow arrived at a place where we are seeking to limit the meaning and nuance of visual imagery,” she says. “We have ceded responsibility to external forces, which seek to codify a form and practice that essentially defies codification. Sometimes we have to liberate the images from the oppression of specific city.” Centralia can be understood as a case study of the latter. In its current format, the book dummy repeats the same images multiple times with slight variations on scale, crop and how other superimposed images obfuscate some elements. There’s a filmic feel, as if we were witnessing the analogue splicing process involved in producing a movie. In this case the reader becomes the editor, reconstructing a narrative from fragments. “We must demand, or at least expect, a great deal from our audience,” says Basu. “In not doing so we risk patronising them, or oversimplifying situations and presenting a familiar narrative that imparts no information and doesn’t challenge their preconceptions of events, situation or people.”

Thus, the viewer should be put to task, required to analyse and enquire, not just merely receive information. This is exactly what Centralia demands. The images, words and found documents act as clues, unearthing the hidden details, tying them together and conducting supplementary investigation. Deciphering the situation is up to us. Besides offering insights into contemporary India, the project is, in the mind of its author, also a “forewarning of where, as a collective society, we’re heading. Centralia is the future.”

Understanding how message and medium work hand in hand, Basu is also hoping to engage the public with a short experimental film, a meditation on the themes and symbols within the work. “My work here is far from over and will continue to evolve,” she says. “I have never felt comfortable with one, linear way of working. The work has to evolve and change direction depending on what is the best way for telling of the story. One way to do that is to never assume a story has an ending.”

Laurence Butet-Roch

Laurence Butet-Roch is a photographer, writer, PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University, and Graduate Research Associate at the Sensorium: Centre for Digital Arts and Technology. Her research unsettles mainstream representation of environmental contamination in Canada through participatory visual discourse analysis and collaborative photographic approaches.