The most overpowering images in the exhibition entitled Singur: Under Development, organized by Citizens’ Initiative (Seagull Arts and Media Resource Centre, June 27–July 2), were those of clumps of overturned earth and of the wall that separates the Tata Motors Factory from the surrounding fields. While one associates clods with a ploughed field ready for sowing, in Singur, the earth has been dug up, broken and mauled not in preparation for the crops but for the construction of the factory. This knowledge gave the images of furrowed earth a peculiar sense of exposure, illegitimacy and outrage, which, in turn, was reflected in the eyes of the villagers. And the wall, pitiless in its impersonality, stood as the absolute divide between the landless and homeless villagers on the one hand and the architects of a ‘resurgent’ Bengal on the other. The alienness of the wall among the rolling green fields was emphasized by the village children who sat on it, their slackened pose denoting their lack of interest or involvement in the life that went on on the other side (picture, top left).
While it was easy to be moved by the fancies that are curled around these images, their value lay more in what they were in themselves than in what they signified. The photographs, taken by the young members of Citizens’ Initiative who had visited Singur several times from February till June this year, were meant to enable us — who have preferred to sit and comment on Singur while the people there fought for their lands — to see, above all else. And what we saw was absence — of sufficient teachers in schools, of job opportunities in spite of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, of basic health facilities — that had dogged the villagers even before Tata Motors happened, but more so now. This is ironic since one of the promised benefits of industrialization had been the improvement of the living conditions of the villagers by providing them with employment. Yet a destitute couple who had previously worked in the fields now scavenged for firewood inside the Tata premises. The benches inside the classroom of the Beraberi Ramakrishna Vivekananda Sevasram Balika Vidyalaya stood empty, because families, impoverished further by the loss of their lands, could not afford to send the children to school (top right). In another photograph (bottom), women and children worked in the shadow of the ubiquitous wall at a harvest that had been reduced substantially since the factory ate up the land.
The pictures spoke so eloquently to the urban viewer precisely because the photographers are people who do not belong to the villages and yet have tried sincerely to see with the dispossessed villagers’ eyes, to feel as they do. Perhaps only a visitor from the city could have been alive to the threatened beauty of the fields as captured in some of the photographs. And only the same empathetic viewer could so poetically capture the emotions on the unnamed villagers’ faces — ranging from anger, dismay, bafflement to despair and resignation. The mirror placed among the gallery of faces was an intelligent ploy to catch the viewer unawares as he moved among the images. Thanks to the mirror, every viewer must have gained an insight into his own stand on the land-acquisition issue.
The detailed captions accompanying the photographs provided the factual context to the images. Since an exhibition like this demands that nothing be left unsaid, the captions, which often included quotes from public statements by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee or Ratan Tata, made the gap between official promise and actual practice starkly clear. However, since the purpose of the exhibition was to convey the reality of Singur to as many people as possible, a wider audience could have been addressed had the captions been in Bengali as well.
The quotations from the poetry of Amiya Chakrabarti, Samar Sen or Sankha Ghosh, while adding an imaginative dimension to the images, distracted a bit by diverting attention away from the immediacy of the photographs. And the quotes from Sylvia Plath’s poems would rather not have been there. I am yet to figure out what “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103º” have to do with the women of Singur struggling to sustain their families. Surely, the photographs would have been as moving even if there were no poet to direct the emotions they evoked.