Fact is an unstable category, subject to distortion, fragmentation, and incompleteness. These conditions inform the practice of the photographer Soumya Sankar Bose who, since 2017, has been building a body of work around the 1979 massacre of Bengali refugees on the island of Marichjhapi on the eastern coast of India. Situating his project within the gaps of the historical archive, Bose draws upon scholarly essays, speeches from politicians, copies of government documents, and his own photographs of former and current refugees, opening it to new interpretation. Together, these materials form Bose’s self-published book, Where the Birds Never Sing. The book’s small size and slipcase allow the artist to almost disguise the contents held within; its elegant, stamped cover and spine make the book appear much like any other artist catalogue or historical text. However, the experience of thumbing through the documents, archival sources, testaments, and portraits of violence proves Bose’s project to be more expansive—it exposes the contradictions in the “official” accounts of the massacre and demonstrates the immense distance between the state’s promises to rehabilitate the refugees and the true brutality of the event.(1)
Where the Birds Never Sing
Soumya Sankar Bose with texts by Soumya Sankar Bose, Aditya Kumar, Annu Jalais
Designed by Barnali Bose
Self-published by Red Turtle Photobook
21 x 16.5 cm
Edition of 600
Hardcover book with case, with several tactile elements
CBA Collection no. FA.B122.2444
Bose’s research intersects a critical juncture in Indian history. Beginning on January 24, 1979, thousands of lower-caste Bengali refugees, who were promised resettlement by the West Bengal state government on the sparsely populated island of Marichjhapi in the Sundarbans, were forcibly evicted. The government ordered an economic blockade, increasing police presence around the island. A week later, police reportedly sunk the boats of refugees attempting to escape, followed by a months-long campaign of assault and brutally forced evictions. In a subsequent effort to obscure any official record of the event, the government banned media coverage.
Where the Birds Never Sing pushes against conceptions of both “official” and “record,” expanding beyond the singular event of the Marichjhapi massacre to trace its ripple effects in the present. The endpapers include an aerial photograph of Marichjhapi as it stands today. The rightmost margins of subsequent pages list the name and age of each of the thirty-six people killed by state police on that fateful day, interspersed with photographs of survivors who witnessed the massacre and atrocities. Bose’s photographs accompany fragments of his interviews with the survivors, which hint at how the trauma of state violence reverberates across time in fits and starts. Many of the artist’s inquiries focus on specific details left unanswered. The book’s dedication reads: “To the people who departed on 31 Jan 1979.”
Bose relies on a modality that literary scholar Saidiya Hartman has termed “critical fabulation,” which advocates for the melding of factual evidence with fictionalized narratives that give voice to those marginalized by history. He supplements his investigative inquiries with staged photographs—a fact gleaned from the notes and index at the end of the book—employing actors to recreate characters central to the story of Marichjhapi, thus blurring our understanding of fact and fiction.
In one sense, Where the Birds Never Sing is a catalogue of discrepant accounts. Though the photographs Bose took of the Marichjhapi landscape were mounted in Kolkata’s Experimenter Gallery at Ballygunge Place as a powerful exhibition in spring 2021, it is the printed and bound edition of Bose’s project, with its errant contents cloaked in the conventional form of a hardcover book, that marks the project as politically and aesthetically subversive. Where the Birds Never Sing breaks open the notion of the book as a form by making a quiet acknowledgment that writing a comprehensive history of violence is necessarily limited by access, authority, and the limitations imposed by the state. Throughout the volume, Bose juxtaposes previously stifled historical testimonies from refugees with photographs and snippets of interviews with Marichjhapi’s current residents, underscoring how state power is secured through intentional erasure and counterfactuals.
Rather than yet another authoritative study of the past or volume to place on a bookshelf indexing its owner’s erudition, the book inhabits a fluidity that allows Bose to figuratively slip through the conventions of genre and literally slip in voices that contest claims to truth made by those in power. Wrapped by a slipcase that is itself stamped with a masked figure, the book hints at the many layers and iterations of masking, uncovering, and recovering of history contained within. Bose has included three small inserts, separate from the rest of the book. A stapled booklet contains a reprint of a 2005 academic text by Annu Jalais on the ecological and economic motivations for the removal of refugees—the lone cohesive essay in the book—and excerpts from a 1979 debate between former West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu and the former Prime Minister.
The remaining two small individual inserts, entirely unbound from the rest of the volume, evince the reparative aims of Bose’s project. The first is a missive from the chairman of a refugee relief organization; the second is from a female refugee detailing in excruciating language her rape by district policemen. Printed on heavy cardstock, these inserts contrast sharply with the thin, mottled facsimiles of the rehabilitation and relief certificates issued by the Government of India stapled at the center of the book. By granting the refugee narratives greater material weight, Bose seeks to correct the totalizing force of a nation-state that has treated the lives of these uprooted, lower-caste refugees as entirely expendable. Untethered from the rest of the book, these precarious testimonies from precarious peoples threaten to slip away from the reader, prone to be misplaced or lost by history. Amalgamating various forms of witness and affective textures of testimony within a noncomprehensive volume, Bose skillfully reveals that the authority of the historical archive is built on shaky, unstable terrain.
Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe (26) 12, no. 2 (June 2008), pp. 1-14.