Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

A picture of missionary graves in Sohra, Khasi Hills (Pict Tarun Bhartiya
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An Intimate and Extraordinary Story of the Faith of a People, Told With Passion and Insight in 103 Black and White Photographs

There is a haunting charm about black and white photography. It carries a rare sense of focus and purpose. It sees little else than what is looked for making it the medium of choice for many photographers (and cinematographers) when the themes of their stories are intense and poignant. We have seen this in Steven Spielberg “Schindler’s List”. This movie is an adaptation from a historical fiction based on the very much real experience of the Holocaust or Shoah, in which Hitler’s Nazi regime in one of the worst pogroms in human history, went on a mission to exterminate the Jews from the face of the earth. It tells of the story of one man, Oskar Schindler’s exceptional courage and commitment to save persecuted Jews, especially children, from elimination. Most of the story is told in black and white cinematography, especially while the intense drama of fear, conscience and untold pictures dehumanisation of humans lasted. But after the war was over with Hitler’s defeat, and the thousand and odd children Schindler saved were elders themselves, settled and looking to reconcile with their nightmarish past, the movie transformed dramatically to colour. The tormented soul that the movie dealt with all the while, suddenly seemed to have retreated behind the calm and colour of normal everyday life. The purging effect of colour was intended and it was strongly palpable, so much so that there were objections raised, in particular by Holocaust scholar of repute and author of many authoritative books and papers on the subject, Dominick LaCapra, who called the sense of uplift that the ending of the film provided unwarranted, and a dilution of a serious human concern and resistance against political bigotry.

This short account of “Schindler’s List” is just to give the sense of power of the black and white medium. It penetrates and sees the soul of things, and this becomes extremely effective when indeed what the artist is looking for is the soul of things. Unlike colour, in visual arts, photography in particular, this medium does not encourage the onlooker to stray their attention away to so many other points of interest that colour is so full of. There is also strong touch of nostalgia subliminally associated with this medium, for photography once was only black and white, therefore an added charm when telling stories of the past.

Praying before baptism, Khasi Hills (click to enlarge)

Most of us who are familiar with Tarun Bhartiya’s work even from his posts on Facebook, know he is a master of black and white photography. Obviously, the medium suits him and most of the themes that align with his temperament, therefore he chooses to explore. He does look to discover the souls of things even in seemingly very routine and ordinary subjects such as the copy of a much-used Bible, a church ruin or the stone monoliths of the Khasis. The latest evidence of his superb story telling ability and the knack of seeing beyond the apparent, is a recently published photographic monograph titled “Imagining the Nation State: Niam/Faith/Hynniewtrep” (most of the photographs are by him but some are acquired from private collections as indicated in the credit line of each photograph). All the pictures in this publication are framed in the format of the old postal postcards, adding a sense of antiquity to these images. Every postcard is in black and white, except for occasional overprints of official rubber stamp impressions in purple, conveying again an impression of the State’s omnipresent surveillance.

Revival service Shillong (click to enlarge)

The story documented and being told is of the Khasi’s tryst with faith and it runs in three parallel narrative streams. The Christianity planted in these hills by Welsh missionaries, and depth of the roots it has set in the century and a half that have gone by; an emerging weak signs of revival of the indigenous faiths of the Khasis that the Welsh Christianity uprooted and marginalised; and both these are set against the backdrop of the menacing rumbles of aggressive Hindutva bigotry in modern India. The first two streams are in pictures and the last in form a repetitive reproduction of passages from the anti-conversion law recently introduced in Uttar Pradesh, almost coming as a foreboding that this aggression is not too far away from these hills too. Indeed, the last picture in the series shows a picture captioned as “Cast Hindu icons on tribal monoliths Khasi-Jantia Hills borders (2019)”.

A ritual of the Khasi indigenous faith (click to enlarge)

The photographs are a treat and the story told is articulate. You get the sense of multiple overlapping human stories even within the three strands that I have talked of in the earlier paragraph. The penetration depth as well as spread of the roots of Welsh Christianity in the Khasi and Jantia Hills come across strongly in the stony reminders of the antiquity of the faith in Churches, some in ruins and others still functional; on the faces of newly baptised as well as in the countenance of boredom on older folks for whom the ritual attendance to Church services have become routine and banal; in everyday objects associated with the faith such as a pile of Bibles on a worn out wooden table, a lost rosary forgotten on the ledge of a concrete fencing and more. All indicate how much the faith has become part of life amongst the Khasis. All the while there is the constant drone of passages from the Uttar Pradesh anti-conversion law running along side on the writing space of the postal postcard. Alongside these are the occasional glimpses of the trauma of the original conversion of the Khasis to Welsh Christianity, powerfully conveyed by the very fact of a marginal pictorial representation given in this monograph to the revivalist movement of the original Khasi indigenous faith, as well as some sparse passages from Khasi poet, Almond Syiem.

A pile of Bible translations (click to enlarge)

Enhancing this tension is the black and white medium’s technical versatility in some areas, such as tweaking of clarity, sharpness or play with light and shadow in post-processing in the computer, giving many of the picture almost surreal textures, previously seen only in images taken with large format expensive field cameras such as those used by past landscape maestro Ansel Adams. In colour, because different colour wavelengths respond differently to these tweaks, what is normal and acceptable for some colours, become aberrations for others making it impossible to achieve the same effects as in black and white images.

In conclusion, this is an intimate story of a people with deep history and tradition, well told with extraordinary passion and insight by a sensitive and masterly photographer in the black and white medium, printed on exactly 103 plus one postcards, the last of which carries just the author’s signature – for a change and to good effect, in royal blue ink.

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