A multilayered document of the Shaheen Bagh protest site

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“The tent itself was the central womb. It was constantly shape-shifting, swelling to accommodate more protesters”

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh is a book that depicts the life and death of a protest site. Within its pages, Indian photographer Prarthna Singh constellates images, portraits, maps, children’s drawings, songs, poems, letters and other memorabilia born from the Shaheen Bagh movement. Self-published earlier this year, the book is a record of radical female resistance, an attempt to validate its significance and resist its active erasure. 

On 15 December 2019, a small group of Muslim women from the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood started a bonfire and a sit-in protest on one of Dehli’s busiest highways. They were responding to a brutal act of police violence at Jamia Millia Islamia university where students were demonstrating against two government bills designed to strip the Indian constitution of its promise of religious equity, forcing Muslims to leave or be internally displaced. While injured students were rushed to medical facilities, and others were barricaded in their classrooms, their mothers and grandmothers took to the streets.

The protest site, the beating heart of the movement was made of brightly hued tarpauline. A shapeshifter of sorts, new layers were added to it every day to include the large number of people joining, also to protect us from the incessant rain and hail. The Metropolitical department had declared that Delhi was witnessing one of its coldest winters in 108 years © Prarthna Singh.

The protest began with a few dozen women rising to a movement of 100,000 at its peak. Shaheen Bagh was transformed into an unprecedented site of female resistance led by one of India’s most disenfranchised groups: working-class Muslim women. Under a large tarpaulin tent, they sat in peaceful protest by way of singing, poetry, prayer and performance for 100 days and nights. 

“The tent itself was the central womb,” says Singh, who joined the movement as a protester in January 2020. “It was constantly shape-shifting, swelling to accommodate more protesters, with makeshift waterproofing systems to battle the constant rain and sleet. Delhi was experiencing its coldest winter in 108 years, yet the warmth and energy the tent emitted were magical.” The Delhi police surrounded the site with multiple barricades and checkpoints, but the movement persisted despite the looming threat. “The site was quite volatile, but the womb always felt safe because there were so many women, and no matter what happened, you were always holding someone’s hand,” explains Singh. “Women of all ages, from 88-year-old grandmothers to newborns, were present. It felt like one joined family.”

Portraits of the protesters: Women of all ages, from across the Delhi NCR and different corners of the country, made their way to Shaheen Bagh to show their solidarity © Prarthna Singh.

A whole ecosystem was created on-site to sustain the protesters physically and emotionally. Orchestrated by a network of female volunteers, they set up kitchens, chai stalls, popcorn wallahs and art installations. They collected and donated winter clothing to keep protesters warm and even created a library at a neighbourhood bus stop. Their camaraderie manifested in endless small gestures of care and love. For many women, the most vital component was the crèche and art centre, where protesters’ children could be cared for after school while their mothers sat vigil.

“Women still had to maintain their responsibilities: housework, looking after their children, taking care of sick family members, while also making time to attend the protest”, explains Singh. “It was a moment of extraordinary labour – channelled into their homes and country – to save our democracy.” Singh describes this communal caregiving by including the children’s artwork in the book – allowing the viewer to experience the protest from their perspective. This collaborative care is also present in Read and Resist, a painting contributed by artist Sameer Kulavoor, describing the effort required to maintain a protest site of this scale.

‘Read and Resist’ a painting by artist Sameer Kulavoor, depicts the protest as viewed from the children’s perspective. Sameer is one half of Bombay Duck Designs, the team responsible for designing the book.

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh [meaning every evening belongs to Shaheen Bagh] is no ordinary photobook. The softback format is more akin to a scrapbook or archive. Deliberately uncontrolled raw edges and irregular page sizes capture the long-term protests’ spontaneous and ever-evolving nature. Amongst the drawings, hand-drawn maps and collections of poetry that punctuate the book are Singh’s portraits. Made in a makeshift photo studio on site, the images shot on a mix of iPhone, Polaroid and 35mm go some way to describe the emotional psyche of the protesters as they navigate a state of fear and hope. Page after page, the protesters’ faces stare back at us, meeting our gaze and demanding our attention. Singh’s intention with the book is to embody the experience of attending as much as to offer a document of the movement.

On 17 March 2020, the protest abruptly ended due to the Covid19 lockdown. When Singh returned to the site seven months later, every sign of the movement had been erased. “As a citizen, the protest meant witnessing first-hand the power of community, of true solidarity of reimagining a different future together,” she says. “For that brief moment, power was with the people, and it felt uplifting! Being at the protest gave me hope and strength to make this book after every sign of the movement had been erased and the state continued incarcerating students and activists.”

Prior to this work, Singh’s practice was rooted in a quieter, more reflective exploration of women’s liberation. Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh is more chaotic and emotional, marking a new phase in her practice. “Documenting one of the biggest female-led resistances since our independence struggle cemented this belief that my work and my belief system are deeply connected. The last few years have been transformative crystalising the space I want to occupy as a visual artist in India and my desire to form bonds beyond the confines of image-making.”

Har Shaam Shaheen Bagh is available here

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.