Dissecting a photograph from our colonial past

From scribbling a geometric equation behind the projected screen to the moment the two performers walk out of the setting, the live essay installation, Seen At Secundra Bagh engaged the viewers in a stimulating discourse.

Pivoted around a picture taken from the Transparent Performer/ Surface Tension, a selection of 19th century archival photographs from the Alkazi Collection of Photography, Zuleikha Chaudhari in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective, presented a 50-minute performance. The show aimed to scratch beneath the surface of Felice Beato’s photograph of the Interior of Secundra Bagh after the massacre of 1857 popularly known as the Mutiny of 1857. The photographs were taken in 1858 in Lucknow and there are differing opinions about the presence of the gory remains of the massacre, as captured by Felice’s camera, a year later.

Revolving around the projected image of a composition featuring a white horse, four men, and an array of skeletal remains set against the Sikandar Bagh Palace, the performers, Kavya Murthy and Bhagwati Prasad, unfold a narrative fixing a moment from the history of colonial rule in India, that seemingly is the faithful representation of facts. Though the skeletal remains of about 2,000 sepoys were left unburied in the courtyard of Secundrabagh Palace, historians contest that Felice Beato rearranged the skeletons to heighten the tension in this photograph. Ergo, the performance takes on from that controversial aspect of the represented reality and echoes varied perspectives.

Elaborating upon the quintessential element of the performance, Zuleikha Choudhari explains, “The composition of a photograph is the staging of reality. And in this, they are provocative source materials. Any photograph contains features that could be considered to be the elements of a performance - people and place. The perspective of the figures and their relationships to landscapes and events could be considered to be the material with which one could explore the quality of the performer, and forms of performative experiences.”

“Where does the ‘real’ start and where does it end?Where does ‘fiction’ start and where does it end? This tension enables us and also forces us to be active – allows us to consider different, equally valid perspectives,”exclaims the artiste. The performance entails the fluid movements and voices of the two performers (both non-actors) inscribing moves, notes and fragments from letters (including letters from Indian soldiers in Europe during the First World War) and observations.

“The proposition – that of the transparent performer – is to consider that the performer is not the focus of the performance but rather a medium via whom, we as the viewers, engage with questions and multiple possible readings and meanings of this image,” sums up Zuleikha.

In the end, the performers walk out of the intimate setting of the essay installation, leaving the audience in a limbo, wandering what would follow ahead. The reverberating ‘sounds of silence of the photograph reasserts itself’ echoes across the room. “We are left by the performers with the image itself to continue our contemplation and consideration of the photograph and of the other photographs in the space. I think it is about a democratisation of perception - the viewer is asked to make their own meaning and draw their own conclusions,” elucidates Zuleikha.

Watch this engaging dialogue on our history on January 30 and February 24 by registering for free in advance at Triveni Kala Sangam.

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