What does war look like? When you hear of the Indo-Pak Kashmir conflict, what is the visual image that comes to mind? A quick google-image-search reveals images of soldiers, politicians, protests : but we rarely see or hear the women.

At the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale, a powerful photo-installation is drawing attention to women in Kashmir. A collaboration between artist Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar, the installation called ” When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops” offers a view into the ‘private space of war’

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Exhibit View | Photo: Devi Art Foundation

This installation was first showcased in the year 2000 at the India Habitat Center in New Delhi. It represents voices of women from Kashmir Valley, and those from refugee camps in Jammu and Delhi that otherwise remain ignored; breaking several stereotypes and challenging media-representation of war in terms of gender.

In the backdrop of the recent Pulwama attack and a counter-air-strike by India, the significance of this installation is heightened.

When the Gun is Raised, Dialogue Stops: The Exhibit

This photo-installation uses prayer-book stands (rihals) to display rusted iron ‘books’. The books contain heart-wrenching images and testimonies of “women from Kashmir who are often stuck between military and militant violence”.

You cannot miss the irony of using prayer-books displayed on low-height brick stands, with a layer of rice divided by loose earth: just as rihals are used for holy books of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism [all religions literally saying the same things] – these books of women’s voices, irrespective of religion, community or caste, echo the rejection of violence over land.

The photographs and testimonies displayed in the exhibit have been collected over a span of six years. Between 1994 – 2000, Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar recorded a diverse set of voices. These include ordinary women who’s husbands / sons / brothers are or have been militants; women who have been subjected to violence by militants and / or security forces; college students and housewives.

Through the installation, Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jabbar challenge the stereotypical image of women from the Valley

The exhibition also lifts the veil on Kashmiri women, often represented as grieving / mourning; instead, it gives them a voice which is strong, and articulate.

These are women who must overcome the consequence of war and shoulder the responsibilities of their families; women who are at the center of conflict, and yet have remained unheard and invisible – until now.

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The Installation at Devi Art Foundation

The Chennai Photo Biennale is on till March 24. If you are around, don’t miss this one!

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