The Interplay of Narratives and Perceptions in Outermost India

Winner of the PHmuseum 2018 Grant, Poulomi Basu captured the absurdities and atrocities of civil war while unveiling the elusive mysteries of her homeland.

© Poulomi Basu, from the series Centralia

There is a land that shimmers as if seen through a kaleidoscope, beaming at night and ever-changing. In the ubiquity of its vastness, it is earthly and ephemeral at once.

Indian photographer Poulomi Basu cunningly captures sheer reality as it presents itself, the commotion crystalised into perfect moments: people’s faces, their likenesses, gestures; a community reunited in utter celebration; the graves that honour the fallen; the atrocities of a vicious war. And then she shares the desolate landscape that embraces it all - a land, now soft, now dry, burning.

Centralia - her long-form documentary work that won the PHmuseum 2018 Grant Main Prize - explores the many facets of our notion of truth, even when it conceals itself in the form of a paradox. "Centralia is a labyrinth. Centralia is an investigation into a little known and under-reported conflict. Centralia is shadows across a landscape," Basu explains. "The intersection between blurred identities, extrajudicial killings, obfuscation of the official and counter narrative, and the displacement of tribal native Indians in the face of brutal mineral excavations." 

© Poulomi Basu, from the series Centralia

Entering the remote forests of central India, Basu covered the ongoing civil war that has ravaged the region for more than a decade in its modern form. She visited the forests of Abujhmarg, Narainpur and the forests of Bastar in Chattisgarh, considered "the ground zero of the insurgency."

Still largely neglected and under-reported by Western media, violent clashes between Maoist troops and the government of India's paramilitary and state forces rip through the woodlands. The dispute is rooted in ancient resentments: reclaimed independence, control of the land, and forced displacement.

Reporting on the warfare, Basu creates striking juxtapositions by drawing images from different contexts and distances. The narrative expands beyond its local, rural boundaries to convey a conflict much broader. Adding to the layers, Basu’s work is invested not only with social but also personal connotations.

© Poulomi Basu, from the series Centralia

Some of the traces left by this conflict through the years resonate personally with Basu. The uprising originated in 1967 in Naxalbari, a village in the provinces of the Darjeeling district, in north West Bengal. Led by local tribal and communist leaders supportive of the Maoist creed, it soon spread through the region, reaching Calcutta, where Basu was born in 1983 and grew up. Here, student protesters joined the movement against the government militia. Areas directly surrounding Basu’s house served as the theatre for these clashes. The conflict covered in Centralia shows deep ties to the movement and the clash that took place five decades earlier.

Distancing herself from traditional techniques of documentary photography, Basu uses an eclectic language designed to provoke and challenge the viewer. Rather than telling a story in linear terms, she scatters evocative details throughout her work, like an intricate labyrinth, an unfamiliar house, in each new room a clue to interpret.

© Poulomi Basu, from the series Centralia

The fractured layers of representation become a terrain of ambiguity, fertile seeds for the present-day society where nothing is what it seems. Or is it? Does it depend on our own personal perspective? Is it up to each viewer – by constantly looking, interpreting, and judging – to attribute significance to this story, while the photographer serves as merely a clever hunter of moments?

Basu’s "disjointed methodology" is well-suited for questioning the conservative framework of neo-colonialism, charged with the interpretative prejudices of the past, now ready to be overturned. Basu finally shifts the discourse away from old preconceptions to restore a different narrative and develop what she calls a new ontology of the Indian experience. "My hybrid methodology eschews specificity, and is deliberately disjointed, stripping images of trite visual cues that often simplify complex geopolitical realities," she says. "This method seeks to challenge the viewer, engaging them in the confusion and shifting realities of the conflict."

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Poulomi Basu is an Indian photographer, a storyteller, and an artist. She is the co-founder and director of Just Another Photo Festival, a festival aiming to democratise photography by taking it to the people and forging new audiences. Follow her on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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