India: Moments, Contradictions… Sheba Chhachhi’s Snapshots From A Movement

Sheba Chhachhi works with lens-based images, both still and moving, investigating questions of gender, ecology, violence and visual culture. Her works address the question of transformation, personal and collective memory, retrieving the marginal and the play between the mythic and the social. A long-time chronicler of the women’s movement in India, as both photographer and activist, she began developing collaborative, staged photographic portraits with her subjects in the early Nineties, moving on to photo-based installations… Public art interventions are an important part of Sheba’s practice, in Delhi and elsewhere. Excerpt from Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India

MY feet slip on the cold metal table. I brace myself, this has to be done fast – we’ve somehow talked our way into the morgue at AIIMS, to photograph the body of a young woman murdered by her husband. I have only a few minutes, this will be evidence.

She is beautiful, severely bruised. The long vertical suture on a body still full of promise. I do not have to close my eyes to see it, even now, thirty years later.

There is little hope of justice. The husband, the in-laws, the police as well as the doctors are in collusion.

Her mother begins to haunt me. She wants these photos. I believe she should not see her daughter in this form, I refuse. She comes to Saheli, finds her way to my studio in Jangpura, calls me again and again.

I tell her the photos are with the lawyer, that I do not have them, that the negatives are also in the case file. She will not take no for an answer. She is obsessed with the photograph of her dead daughter, she wants to see it, just once.

Despite everything, I never show them to her.

Years later, I find that the negatives have disappeared.

THE shutter clicks, an efficient, attuned rhythm. Absorbed, very concentrated, I turn the spool, and the roll has finished! The familiar hazards of using cheap, re-spooled bulk film… I am precariously perched on a barricade, squeezed between two policemen, facing the demonstration as it approaches.

A press photographer close to me silently hands me two rolls of hi-speed, expensive TRI X, in unusual professional solidarity. Equally silently, I load the film and carry on. Shortly after, to his surprise, I jump over the barricade and join the demonstration shouting slogans.

It’s 1981, the height of the anti-dowry campaign. More and more women join, the demonstrations swell, the rage and refusal to accept the killing of women for dowry is implacable.

SIX years later, I infiltrate the Rani Sati celebration procession in the guise of a Press photographer. My spying is useful, a tiny group of us manage to intercept this annual valorisation of Sati and briefly disrupt the ritual.

The bewildered women see me join the ‘troublemakers’.

The following year we return, in full force. The procession is more elaborate, grand with elephants, brass bands and tableaux. Women in bridal finery sit above cardboard flames while the cry of “Rani Sati ki jai!” is shouted on the megaphone. Suddenly, on the same megaphone, we hear the same voice calling out anti-dowry slogans! Each float carries a banner declaring anti-dowry sentiments.

The first taste of what will be a series of appropriations of the movement…

BIDYA suddenly bursts into the ’80’s feminist song “Tod tod ke bandhano ko…”, as Bharti’s body is carried to the crematorium. She stops short – and the chant of “Lal Salaam, Comrade” takes over, to be replaced a while later by “Nari Shakti Zindabad!”, a curious contrapuntal between the autonomous women’s movement and the independent Left, between urban feminist community-based health workers and rural activists from the land rights struggle.

We sing songs from both movements, holding alliances, affiliations, autonomies in a productive tension, as she did, over more than thirty years of dedicated activism.

Just a week ago Bharti was at the Free Binayak Sen sit in, at our now designated protest site, Jantar Mantar. Less than a year ago, I photographed her in her wheelchair at the same place, this time at the barricades on International Women’s Day, 2010.

An almost forgotten self rises and I call out the chant – flushed with the energy, the weight, the warmth and the power of singing together, chanting together. What I took for granted in the ’80s’s and ’90s’s, becomes rare and precious in 2011.

(Excerpted from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement InIndia’, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by: Women Unlimited, 2011; Pp: 386; Price (Softback): Rs 350.)


(© Women’s Feature Service)


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