Seen at Secundrabad
11, 12, 13/05 – 20:30
14/05 – 18:00
EN / Hindustani > FR / NL
The starting point for Seen at Secundrabad is a photograph taken in 1857 by the war photographer Felice Beato, three months after a bloody mutiny within the British East India Company. Four men and a horse pose in front of the lens, surrounded by bones that had simply been left there. Fixing a moment in India’s colonial history, the image seems to be a faithful representation of the facts. However, knowing that the exposure of a photograph in those days took a long time, we can deduce that it is the outcome of pure and simple staging. For her new project, Indian director Zuleikha Chaudhari is collaborating with the Raqs Media Collective. This group of three artists has acquired an international reputation, alternating visual works, publications and curatorial projects. Together, they dissect Beato’s photo and put together a remarkable show that combines Chaudhari’s uncluttered direction and the Raqs Media Collective’s theoretical approach. Their new work, Seen at Secundrabad, questions the deception of images and lays bare the intrinsic simultaneity of past, present and future.
By & with
Zuleikha and Manish Chaudhari & Raqs Media Collective
Zuleikha Chaudhari Productions (Delhi)
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Festival d’Automne à Paris, Wiener Festwochen
Seen at Secundrabad
The performance/installation uses as a starting point a textual extract from The Surface of Each Day is Another Planet by the Raqs Media Collective. This textual fragment annotates a photograph taken by the itinerant war photographer Felice Beato in Lucknow in 1857 in the aftermath of the ‘mutiny’ in the army of the East India Company, which eventually led to the consolidation of British imperial power in India.
The photograph features a studied composition of a white horse, its attendants, and an array of the skeletal remains of several human beings set against a neo-classical ruin that has seen recent shelling.
The performance has developed from this to incorporate new textual video and performative material to present a piece that looks back at the past even as it thinks about the future.
Scene at Secundera Bagh, Lucknow, 1858. Annotations to a photograph by Felice Beato
Raqs Media Collective
Secundera Bagh is a relatively small, walled pleasure garden on the eastern outskirts of the North Indian city of Lucknow. During the siege of Lucknow in the war referred to as the ‘mutiny’ of 1857 in the forces of the British East India Company in India, Sikandra Bagh became a site for some of the fiercest fighting.
An image by the itinerant photographer Felice Beato, whose sojourn in India is bracketed by stints in the Crimean War and the Second Opium War, shows the pavilion within the garden where, as Beato’s own caption dispassionately recalls for us, “two thousand Indians were mercilessly slaughtered in November 1857, by the 93rd Highlanders and the 4th Punjab Regiment, in the course of the attack led by Sir Colin Campbell.” This photograph is taken in March 1858, roughly four months after the actual fighting at the site took place.
At first glance the picture suggests a sentimental melancholia, stately nostalgia for a time gone by, or the fleeting resonance of an arrested time – a baroque ruin, men in studied poses, a fine horse. But then, our eyes begin to work, and travel.
The photograph seems to have been taken in the clear light of day, perhaps at noon. There are no shadows to obscure the fact that the ‘scene’ is the result of a careful act of arrangement. The skeletons are clean, picked to the bone, white against the dun earth, as they would be in a painterly tableau.
We know something about the relative rate of decomposition of cadavers, and the time it takes for a body to be reduced completely to a bare skeleton between the November and March of a North Indian winter.
If the bodies were of the rebels of the mutiny of 1857, they could not have become so clean, so soon. Had they been picked clean by scavenging animals from shallow graves, they would not have remained so well integrated as skeletons. It is possible, in fact highly likely, that they may not be the bones of the dead rebels slaughtered at Sikandra Bagh at all, but props, macabre prosthetic additions, ‘other people bones’ brought in to set the scene because the originals are ‘missing’ or just not good enough for a decent picture.
The bones (whosoever they may in fact have belonged to) have been placed with thought to symmetry and order, just as the carefully held attitudes of the men suggest the exact degree of forethought necessary to create the illusion of spontaneity.
Who were these four men? Were they involved in arranging the bones, or even in digging them up, carrying them and placing them at the visiting photographer’s bidding? What testimonies do bleached bones and a crowd of disinterred skeletons offer up to posterity? What can the bones tell us?
If each of the two hundred and six bones of the adult human body could speak, they would all sing the body's praises. Ossuaries would be operas.
The sternum, or the breastbone would testify to its owner’s pride, the ribs would act as a sentimental chorus, singing an elegy to the fluttering heart-bird, the fibula, tibia and femur, would drum up anthems to strength and vigour, the tarsals and metatarsals, carpals and metacarpals, radius and ulna would praise poise and dexterity, the coccyx would hit a base complaining note, the frontal bone of the cranium would worry. Bones of every function and description would whisper, scream, speak in tongues and measured tones, laugh, cry, sing in tune, off key and off kilter. Only the lonesome hyoid, the unarticulated bone of the tongue, might choose silence in jest at the excess of cadaverous cacophony. The hyoid would hold its tongue, knowing that every life is deserving of only as much noise, or silence, as every other life.
But whose praises would the bones in Beato’s photograph sing? Of the bodies they held together, or of the bodies whose memory they were arranged to stand in for? Of the anonymous dead who fell to forgotten epidemics or a random local famine, and who rose again at the gravediggers bidding, of fugitives picked off the gibbets they were hanged from in the months after the events of 1857, or of the anonymous ‘dead rebels’ of Secundera Bagh who found a place in an iconic photograph even as they lost their real bodies? Can the dead be reborn dead again?
When the bones stop their singing, their whistling, their caterwauling fugue, the silence of the photograph, of a moment of held time, re-asserts itself. The four men and their horse remain. Beato leaves the frame in search of another war. The twentieth century sends a premature shiver down from the future. The photograph taken at Secundera Bagh is an overture. Many more acts will follow.Back to top
Zuleikha Chaudhari is a director and lighting designer from New Delhi in India. She has made a name for herself as a director with stage productions of Ibsen, Brecht and Heiner Müller, among others. In addition, she has worked on several installation projects including Propositions: On Text and Space I (2010) and II (2011). In her native country she has received several prizes for her work.
Raqs Media Collective is a group of three media practitioners – Jeebesh Bagchi (New Delhi, °1965), Monica Narula (New Delhi, °1969) and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (New Delhi, °1968) – based in New Delhi. Raqs is best known for its contribution to contemporary art, and has presented work at most of the major international shows, from Documenta to the Venice Biennale; but the collective is active in an unusually wide range of domains, and it is perhaps this breadth that gives their work its originality and scope. The members of Raqs were co-curators of Manifesta 7, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art which took place in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy in the summer of 2008.Back to top