This photographer and filmmaker’s picture postcards Niam/Faith/Hynñiewtrep: Unaddressed Picture Postcards from Khasi-Jaintia Hills for Hindutva India are a telltale, although true, narrating a disagreeable history of Khasi Hills in Meghalaya.
What most miss at first instance, Tarun Bhartiya keenly observes, and articulates in a fashion that most would call a ‘timeless collection of moments’ from the past. His collection of photographs observe faiths and beliefs wrought out of an encounter between colonialism, mission project and local resitances to it.
The postcards encompass 15 years of Tarun’s work which recount his attempts at trying to question, comprehend and interpret elements of faith and belief in Khasi culture.
Bhartiya‘s work explores the Khasi matrilineal lineage who believe to have originated from seven families residing in Hynñiewtrep – seven huts, who remained on Earth when the tree connecting heaven and earth was cut down. They have their own Niam-faith community, rooted in their land, clan and family.
“The picture postcards raise many questions like usually, people think these conversions are controversial with all the love jihad and prosecuting these days. The matter behind these postcards intervenes and questions the history and politics of faith and belief,” filmmaker, photographer and political activist, Tarun Bhartiya told EastMojo.
The pictures on these postcards resemble typical souvenir postcards or vintage Archies cards that take one on a trip down memory lane, for all those who have walked the streets.
“Postcards are the most ephemeral thing when you go to a tourist place, you buy a picture postcard but then you never see it again and one day it is sold in scrap. I had seen in the archives that the missionaries used to make picture postcards about the Khasi Hills. I thought this will be an interesting historical quotation to do,” Bhartiya explained, speaking of the idea behind the picture postcards being exhibited in Wales till October 30, 2021.
The photographs, however, come with disconcerting notes questioning the faith and beliefs with quotes from evangelists and writings by missionaries, some even with streamers of communal violence. A major part of the text comprises extracts from Uttar Pradesh’s ill-famed anti-conversion law that was passed in the year 2020.
The first picture in the series of monochromatic images begins with a scenic view of the Tyrna village with the Presbyterian and Catholic Church Khasi Hill shot in 2015, followed by ritualistic monoliths of Sohra captured in 2007. The series also contains an antique map of the Khasi and Jaintia hills from the 1870s.
Some of these picture postcards carry powerful quotations of which one unsettling quote, an excerpt from a poem by Almond Syiem, that goes something like this, “A paleface, god-sent young man once entered the quietness of our mist-woven hills, brought us letters, literature and the Bible. He was your countryman. The Tommies, however, brought spite, spattered our fathers’ blood on the ferns and spoke to us in gunfire tones.”
In another excerpt from one of the poet’s writings accompanied by a picture of the first four Bible translations in Khasi from Serampore College Library in Bengal, shot in 2018 by Tarun Bhartiya, the lines read, “I have seen the Welsh who speak in Welsh, and it shames me to hear myself converse, with my own people, in the language of the snobs, the plunderers of our pride, who sold us poverty and slavery free of cost.”
An image of street preaching from Shillong, followed by an extract from the Anti-conversion Law legislated by the Hindutva government in Uttar Pradesh, the rhetoric used in his collection of photographs, highlighted penalty imposed by the legislation.
A mighty significant photograph of children at a Revival Service in Shillong, from 2006, carries another extract from the Hindutva government’s legislation that read, “The burden of proof as to whether a religious conversion was not effected through misrepresentation, force, undue influence, coercion, allurement or by any fraudulent means or by marriage, lies on the person who has caused the conversion and, where such conversion has been facilitated by any person, or such other person.”
The 100 ‘constructed’ picture postcards with both contemporary and archival images of faith in the Khasi hills, by Tarun Bhartiya are displayed at the BayArt Gallery, Cardiff, Wales, at present, as part of Diffusion 2021, a collaboration between Chennai Photo Biennial and Diffusion: Wales International Festival of Photography.
“This is being exhibited right now in Wales, as part of the exhibition Wales International festival of photography and then will be exhibited in Chennai Photo Bienniale which had an open call for projects which imagine the nation’s state. This is one of the five projects that they are exhibiting in Wales of which three are from India and two are from Wales,” said the filmmaker whose name is also credited with films such as ‘The Last Train in Nepal’, ‘Red Ant Dream’ and ‘The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’.
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