Poulomi Basu

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

Poulomi Basu, an Indian storyteller, artist and activist  is the winner of the 2017 FotoEvidence Book Award with her work A Ritual of Exile: Blood Speaks

She was born and raised by her mother in Calcutta. Although no exposure to photography growing up, she found early inspiration in the city’s rich cinematic history. After her father’s sudden death when Poulomi was 17, her mother told her to leave home, to follow her dreams and live a life of breadth and choices that was denied to her.

Since then, Poulomi prefers the path less trodden. Time and again, she has found herself amongst ordinary people who quietly challenge the prevailing orthodoxies of the world in which they live: rural women in armed conflict, women forced in exile, a mother's pain for a son lost to ISIS. Poulomi is forever in awe of the resilience shown by those in extraordinary circumstance, by those who are bent but not broken. Her work has become known for documenting the role of women in isolated communities and conflict zones and more generally for advocating for the rights of women. In December 2015, she shared a platform with the parents of the Nirbhaya Delhi rape victim talking about her social activist initiative, The Rape in India Project.

And, in January 2016 at the UN Young Changemakers Conclave, Poulomi spoke on the social impact of sustainable development with specific reference to her long-term project A Ritual of Exile and her collaboration with NGO Water Aid and their To Be A Girl campaign, which raised £2 million, using her work.

Poulomi was featured alongside Hilary Clinton as one of the one of the 'Amazing women from around the world giving their best advice' by Refinery29.

Poulomi was part of the VII Mentor Program.

She is the Director of Just Another Photo Festival, a traveling guerrilla visual media festival that democratizes photography by taking it to the people and forging new audiences. Her festival was shortlisted by BJP as 2015’s most ‘Cool and Noteworthy’ and in 2016 in JM Colberg’s Conscientious Photography Magazine as an alternate voice of the ‘audience’ in this rare photo land.

Poulomi’s ongoing work A Ritual Of Exile: Blood Speaks won the Magnum Emergency Fund 2016, and was a W.Eugene Smith Finalist 2016. Additionally the Magnum Foundation also awarded her the What Works 2016 Human Right Fellow grant and she was nominee for the FOAM Paul Huff award in 2015. She won the Firecracker 2nd place in 2015 for Mothers of ISIS Fighters which is due for an exhibition on Poetics of War and Secrecy in Oxford 2017. She was a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellow in 2012 among many others. 

What was your experience growing up as a girl in India? Did you experience restraints?

I grew up in Calcutta, in eastern India, in a traditionally patriarchal home, and much of my work springs from an anger and frustration with the roles of women that I observed as a child and continue to study in my current work. A Ritual of Exile is about blood, and the vicious cycle of abuse which blood creates. I see color (red) as a form of control, of abuse, for women. Color has a particular cultural and metaphorical importance in Indian culture, where the wearing of bright colours signifies happiness and celebration, while a widow can only wear white, the colo r of death and mourning. Both my mother and grandmother were child brides and became very young widows. My grandmother never wore any color. I always saw her wearing white until the day she died. I was very close to her and I was saddened to see all of us getting dressed up to go somewhere and she would either not come or, if she did, it would be in white. It really bothered me. And then the same thing happened to my mother. Till now she doesn’t wear red.

At the age of 17, when my father died, I made the bid for my freedom, leaving the family. I had a very difficult childhood, I was a victim of child abuse in my family. A lot of things went wrong. Serious restrictions were imposed upon me as soon as I hit puberty. And like a lot of girls experiencing a restricted upbringing, I just wanted to get the hell out the minute I could.

 How did you find photography? Tell me about your first camera, first pictures.

I was self-taught. I grew up in a very working class family. I had no exposure to photography. But Calcutta is a city of arts and had a massive legacy of cinema, to which I had very early and delightful exposure. I grew up watching Goddard and the great Indian New Wave filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray and later Ritwik Ghatak. Additionally, my mother’s family are mostly musicians and I was trained in Indian classical dance from the age of three. So I had an early understanding of creative arts. However, while my father was alive, I wasn’t allowed to pursue it as a career.
Photography was a beautiful accident. I took my father’s old camera, a Nikon FM2, and left for Bombay. Although my very first photos were of my mother and my grandmother, photographed at my family home. 

My love for cinema drew me to photography. Photography made me frantic, as did my new-found freedom, and I fell in love with it.  In Bombay, I took up a Masters in Film Studies and later worked at a magazine and made some small living to survive. In 2009-2010, I got a scholarship for a Master of Arts at London College of Communication. In 2012, I was awarded the Magnum Foundation Human Rights scholarship at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

How did you first learn about the Hindu ritual of chaupadi? 

As result of my own experience of ritual as a means of control, combined with my later studies in social anthropology I was always drawn to this as a subject. While researching extreme practices within my own Hindu culture, I learned about chaupadi and knew that this was something that needed to be documented; something that needed to be brought to wider attention and ultimately brought to an end. 

Mangu Bika, 14. “I was in Gujarat in India working during my first year of menstruation. I didn’t observe chaupadi there. Things are different here.”
"The first time I went into a chaupadi I was scared of snakes. But now, more than snakes, I am scared of men; I am scared of getting kidnapped. I am really worried about what will happen to me after marriage. I want to grow up and be a teacher because I like going to school. Because when we go to school, we all sit together and their are no rules there or any discrimnation against the menstruating woman. "Chandra Tiruva, 34, and her child, Madan, 2, share the chaupadi with Mangu. "It is the traditional belief that our 'kul devtaa' [house god] will be angered, so I was sent to chaupadi. I don't like being here but there is a lot of force. My mother in law forces me, but what can I do. She looks after my other three children during this period. But my mother in law even makes my two year old child observe chaupadi just because he sleeps with me." Surkhet district, Nepal

How did you prepare for this project? What was the goal?

Chaupadi is one of the worse forms of abuse perpetrated against women but rather than focus just on the stories of victims, I wanted to take a wider perspective and look at the complex social structure within which chaupadi sits. To do this I have documented the related subjects of child brides and child widows. 

Tradition is so preserved and sacred that there is a sense of aggression attached to it. Such aggression is exercised towards those who want to break out of regressive traditional structures. I am fighting to expose the origins of normalized violence against women, and its consequences, the patterns and forms of both are universal. What is happening in Nepal is transferable to every society, whether we choose to perceive it or not. 

Through this project, I want to show how women are silenced and made subservient all around the world using religion and traditional customs. The situation and the tension between tradition and liberal values in Nepal is of universal relevance. We all aspire to societies in which we are free to live and worship as we please but there is a fine line between what one person views as freedom and another views as oppression. The link between patriarchy and ritual in Nepal is clear for all to see but the path for will be a long one, as all stakeholders, women and men, must recognize the injustice and fight together to break a harmful traditional, which keeps the issue of menstruation shrouded in mystery and taboo.
My big objective was always to put an end to this practice and put the subject of menstruation and women’s reproductive rights on the national and international agenda. I first started working on this project in 2013 and, since that time, the media have gradually started to report on this practice. Just recently, the BBC and NPR reported on the deaths of three women that died during November and December. Over the last few years, there has been a gradual realization of the importance of girls and women to economic development.  In Nepal, the rights of women are not yet central to the development agenda and it is only through continued pressure from journalists, international NGOs and grass roots organizations working in tandem that can change this mindset. 

All my personal work demands long-term commitment because I’m fighting society’s structures, structures that cannot be changed overnight. A Ritual of Exile is a multidisciplinary activism project – as a photo essay,  a book, Virtual Reality and other forms to make sure the work reaches the most geographically diverse audience through various forms of distribution. Each form is meant to push the storytelling forward.
All over the world women and girls are held back by violence, have less access to education, less money and less political representation than men. In developing countries, like Nepal or India, this dichotomy is visible; however, in prosperous countries such rituals and their relationship to equality are more hidden. We’ve grown up in a man’s world, fighting and suffering, and I want young women to know that. I want it to be a part of our history.

Laskhmi, 14 in her chhau. She sleeps on heaps of hay stack. Her mother told me Uma did not disclose to anyone when her periods started in fear she would be sent to exile. When they found out after the third day because she ran out of cloths to wear and hide her bleeding, she was punished  she was made to sleep on nothing but hay in the family's animal enclosure.  This marked her coming of age. Basti, Achham, Nepal, 2016.

What was your experience traveling in remote parts of Nepal to look for women in ‘exile’? 

To reach these locations I trekked for days through the dense wilderness of Surkhet and Achham. I was continuously battling the weather, huge storms, cold winters and brutal summers. I remember in the summer it was 47°C (117°F). Burning hot. I was living in a small hut without any electricity or running water. I wasn’t complaining because I still had decent shelter compared to the women enduring the brutal and degrading ritual of chaupadi, whose experiences I was documenting.
I met numerous women inside chaupadi huts, full of shame and resigned to their fate. If a woman is lucky, a hut will be to close her house. Those not so fortunate have to trek far into an isolated part of the forest and the worst off have only a mosquito net and the bare ground. Nandakala, a woman of 46, told me, “I don’t like being here. I do not want to have to do this. I think it is a punishment from God.” A young girl, Maya 14, said, “I think if men understood menstruation we wouldn’t be going through so much pain.”

Saraswati, 16, must live in a closed dark room with her three day old baby because she bled after childbirth. They will be there for 15 days. Not only is Saraswati not allowed to clean herself, she must cook her food in the same tiny dark room even if it means choking her little baby with smoke. After childbirth she developed serious health disabilities. Because of staying in the Chhau and rarely being allowed to step outside, her legs are now swollen to a point she can barely walk. She suffers from serious stress disorder and often had breakdowns. She barely spoke a word to me. Nepal, 2016.

Was it difficult to convince them to speak out? 

Yes, it took some time to build trust and to gain access especially through the gatekeepers, like a mother-in-law or a husband. I found easier access via school teachers. Once I gained access, I made it a point to spend considerable time with the women. I photographed very little. I spent most of the time sharing stories, our secrets and our stories of the struggles of women far and wide.

What did you hear from them about the consequences of chaupadi?

Alone in the wildness, the women are at the mercy of the elements: many die, bitten by snakes or asphyxiated from the smoke of a fire that they use to keep warm in the cold. Sometimes the fire ignites the hut and they die in the ensuring blaze. Women are alone and can be raped and, in extreme cases, abducted, raped and murdered. 
This abuse takes an extreme emotional and physical toll on the women. During their exile, they are only allowed to touch water after three days. They have no access to sanitary towels. They are allowed to eat only boiled rice, foregoing lentils, vegetables and meat. But, of course, during this exile she must continue to work, carrying out tough and grinding manual labor, such as breaking rocks to make roads or chopping and carrying firewood for long distances over difficult terrain.
By the time women reach middle age, their self esteem is totally crushed and many of them live with severe mental heath problems and reproductive health issues.

In 2005, Nepal’s Supreme Court outlawed this practice but it is still continues. What do you see as the obstacles to ending this practice?

I returned to Kathmandu and was shocked by the sight of the annual Rishi Panchami festival with hundreds of women lining the riverbanks, washing themselves 365 times in a purification ritual. The ritual commemorates a women who was reborn as a prostitute because she did not follow menstrual restrictions. More shocking still, is how the Nepalese government helps legitimize the continued violence against women in the form of chaupadi – by designating Rishi Panchami a public holiday for all women. Looking at the women on the river bank, the words of one of the women I met in Surkhet, came to mind, “Why should the gods punish us? Why should women be punished? But what the hell can we do?”
Chaupadi sits within a complex framework of causes and consequences. Ending such ritual-based violence is not just a matter of enforcing existing laws (although this is an important first step) but activists must confront the fundamentally contradictory relationship between women and the Hindu state of Nepal. Often women perpetuate violence against women.  Sadly this is what a patriarchal system creates. Indeed, it remains the case that chaupadi and other such rituals are legitimized by seemingly more benign traditions that are carried out by more educated groups in the urban centers of Nepal. 

Women observing the ritual to wash away the sins committed during mentruation at the annual Rishi Panchami festival, Kathmandu. Nepal.

How do you feel about being granted the 2017 FotoEvidence Book Award? What are your hopes for your book, ”Rituals of Exile: Blood Speaks.”

This award has a great record of recognizing supremely committed storytellers so it is a tremendous honor to receive this award. This is the only book award with a social justice focus so it is a good home for A Ritual of Exile. 
Each photographer brings their own vision: a book is something more than a photo essay. Like a film, its narrative can be cinematic, allowing the story with all its nuance and complexity to slowly reveal itself. I believe in art as activism and a book is one of the greatest forms … it can create all sorts of relevant links and allusions that can really make an impact! 
While I believe strongly in the power of new media, there is also something substantial about a book. Its physicality is important: to be able to give something substantial to an important decision maker is quite something and can make a difference. It is something that they cannot ignore.  The book is going to be a tremendous help in furthering my aims to really put blood politics on to the international agenda and ensure that women no longer have to suffer this terrible abuse. This issue is of crucial importance to creating a more equal and just society and this book will go along way in helping to raise the profile of these issues.