Activists / Commonwealth Writers / Photographers

Shahidul Alam: The search for Kalpana Chakma

Shahidul Alam has long been gripped by the life of a woman he has never met.

It’s been two decades since Kalpana Chakma was abducted, but Shahidul refuses to forget her. Standing at the threshold of his latest exhibition,Kalpana’s Warriors, the Bangladeshi photographer pauses for a moment.

In the room beyond is the third in a series of photo exhibitions that began with Searching for Kalpana Chakma in 2013, and was followed by 18 in 2014. The woman around whom these pictures revolve is notably absent from them. She was abducted at gunpoint in the early hours of 12 June 1996 from her home in Rangamati in Bangladesh. Her captors were a group of plain-clothed men who were recognised as being from a nearby army camp. Kalpana never returned home and her fate remains unknown.

When the exhibition first opened at the Drik Gallery in Dhaka, many of those who had been photographed could not risk coming out of hiding, yet the room was full of people who knew Kalpana’s story intimately. Some simply stood for a while before the portraits, others wept.

“I have never met Kalpana Chakma, I only knew her in terms of her activism but I feel I know her in other ways,” Shahidul says. “I have sat on her bed, have read her diaries, have spent time with her family, I have looked at archival footage of her talks. But more importantly I have felt her presence among the people who survive.”

Kalpana, only twenty-three years old when she was taken, had made it her life’s mission to campaign for the rights of the indigenous people living in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). She herself belonged to the Chakma or Pahari community, and was a leader of the Hill Women’s Federation. There have been multiple reports of human riots violations, massacres and the razing of entire villages by Bangladeshi forces in the CHT from the 1980s onwards. Inevitably, such events brought Kalpana – and by extension all her supporters – into conflict with the State.

His exhibitions have been Shahidul’s determined contribution to finding justice for a brave Pahari woman and her people: “As an artist, certainly as an activist, what one hopes to achieve is that you make people respond to the work at a guttural level. In some way you provoke them, you anger them, or move them from their complacency.”

He seeks to speak truth to power by giving a voice to those who do not usually have one. Kalpana’s brothers, who were also abducted that night but managed to escape, say they identified the men who took them, but that the police never even questioned the principal accused. “The words of the Pahari were never taken into account, it was only the military and the Bengali version that was recorded,” says Shahidul. “I wanted to explore the culpability of the state.”

Shahidul acknowledges that they are navigating a national landscape that seems to offer less and less space for free speech – for dissidence. Beginning in 2013, several secular writers, bloggers and publishers in Bangladesh have been brutally murdered by Islamist extremists. Yet, even as the room to manoeuvre may seem to narrow, he refuses to give way.

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Kalpana by the bridge corrected 600 pix

In many respects, Shahidul deliberately set out to transcend the limitations of photography withKalpana’s Warriors.

While doing his research, his interviewees repeatedly spoke to him of the bareness of Kalpana’s home, of how she slept on the floor on a simple straw mat. Shahidul then chose to use this material as a canvas because it was such a large part of the daily lives of the Pahari people. Their villages had been torched, and so a laser beam was used to burn the straw on stage. The images had to be converted and then converted again to maintain gradient, contrast and all the elements that ensured it retained the feel of a fine print, despite the rough surface on which the images were etched.

The device they used to create the portraits was also one commonly found in Bangladesh’s garment factories, notorious for their poor working conditions after tragedies such as Rana Plaza. “Because of the situation of the workers, a laser device which is used in the garment industry being appropriated for something like this was for me very apt, because I think as artists we need to appropriate the spaces, we need to turn things around. Its guerrilla warfare and in guerrilla warfare you have to use the enemies strength against them, which is what we are trying to do,” Shahidul explained. “I wanted the process itself to deal with the politics.”

Shahidul’s decision to abandon the traditional photography exhibition format in this case was a pragmatic one. “I don’t really see myself a photographer,” he says. “I see myself as a craftsman and as a storyteller.” As the latter, he turns to whichever tools best suit his purpose. As an artist he feels the need to go further, to push himself every time. “It is only when one is creating that one becomes an artist. The rest of the time, one is a technician.”

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Shahidul knows very well what he risks when he steps out onto the streets of Dhaka, where he and his wife, the anthropologist and activist Rahnuma Ahmed live. So what possessed him to pick up Kalpana’s fight? Part of the answer is that he sees himself as less of a photographer and more of an activist.

As the former, Shahidul has often been in the thick of it – on the streets during the people’s campaign to topple the military dictator General Ershad and among an elite few granted exclusive access to Nelson Mandela. He is the recipient of numerous honours, including the Mother Jones and the Andrea Frank Awards, and has seen his work displayed at MoMA in New York, the Royal Albert Hall in London and the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

But Shahidul is one of the most influential photographers of his generation not just because of where he points his lens. He, together with others, founded the award-winning Drik Picture Library and the Bangladesh Photographic Institute. With Pathshala they created an internationally acclaimed school of photography, and with the Majority World photo agency, they championed the work of talented photographers from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, who were otherwise often overlooked.  Shahidul sees all these initiatives as a way of building a community that can challenge entrenched power structures, both political and social, national and global. He sees this as a way of equipping the resistance with vital skills, networks … and cameras.

There are days when Shahidul evaluates his success by who and how many his detractors are. Drik – the host of many a controversial exhibition – has been targeted more than once.  Its phone lines have been cut, its exhibitions forcibly cancelled and death threats delivered to their doorstep. During anti-government demonstrations in 1996, Shahidul himself was pulled out of a rickshaw, robbed and then stabbed eight times by unknown assailants.

“You think you are invincible. You are not,” he says now. In the years that followed the attack Shahidul would become wary at odd moments, tensing up for instance if a vehicle slowed as it overtook him on the street. “Fear is a powerful weapon and that is one of the weapons they use against you. It’s very effective. You try and get over it – sometimes you don’t.”

Class-3 Phandauk

Shahidul and Rahnuma’s home can be an open house, with visitors streaming in and out at all hours. Never more so than when Rahnuma returned to Bangladesh after completing her PhD studies. She found that in her absence her husband had been adopted by – at his count – some forty-seven adolescents. They were all part of ‘Out of Focus,’ a unique Drik project that trained children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists.  Soon, the two would not know how many to expect at the table for every meal. There were long conversations and multiple emotional crisis. “Without having sired any children, we have as parent’s nevertheless experienced teenage pregnancy, syphilis, drugs … the entire spectrum,” Shahidul says, laughing.

As we speak, it is evident to me that Shahidul resists cynicism – despite the many setbacks and challenges he has experienced in his time as an activist-photographer; there is a sense that he is also genuinely hopeful and curious about the world.  He is clear-eyed too, about the challenges of working in Bangladesh, and in this case favours being both forewarned and forearmed.

Under his watch, Drik has proved itself unafraid to stand up to anyone, not least its own government. In Crossfire (2010), one of their most successful exhibitions to date, Shahidul set out to confront the extrajudicial executions carried out by Bangladesh’s notorious Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). Formed in 2004, these death squads are believed to have murdered over a 1,000 people. Working with researchers, Shahidul framed images of the last things victims saw before their deaths, went where their bodies were dumped and used objects to highlight discrepancies in official narratives. He took his pictures at night, by torchlight, to replicate the conditions in which the attacks took place.

Shahidul named this exhibition for the way in which the authorities claimed the victims had died – “crossfired” during an exchange of bullets – and prepared meticulously for the inevitable. When, on cue, the government attempted to ban the exhibition, a combination of an immediate appeal to the courts and the mobilising of citizens out on the street forced the State to back down. In the months that followed, he even heard reports that the RAB had scaled back its activities in the face of public outrage.

Shahidul says such successes have taught him the value of being subtle and strategic. He likens himself as a young man to a battering ram, but now he finds new ways of getting things done. He embodies an uneasy contradiction; in his visual practice he often throws down the gauntlet, but as an activist he sometimes chooses to sit down with the very people he detests. To him, laying down his placard and stepping off the street and into the meeting room means refusing to abdicate his rights, or letting those who have no legal authority go unchecked: “I have very clinically ensured that I am present at the tables where some of those vital decisions are made.”

In response to a question on why he persists despite threats to his life, he says: “I recognise the fact that there is a very thin boundary between getting burnt and being ineffective and there is that space in the middle that is our only space. It requires feeling the heat, it does mean occasionally getting singed, but if you take one step back you cease to be effective and then what is the point in you being what you are?”

Kalpana’s Warriors opens at Art and Aesthetic in New Delhi on 30 January 2016 and will continue till 2 March 2016.

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